[Viewpoin]A cry from the NorthI recently watched the movie, “Crossing.” It was so sad I could not help crying. The audience stayed in the theater while the closing credits rolled, showing the actors and crew who worked on the film. Crossing is a film about a disbanded family of North Korean defectors. The protagonist, named Yong-su, crosses the Duman River to China to get medicine for his wife, who is dying of tuberculosis and malnutrition. While being chased by the Chinese police, Yong-su is told that he could get money by doing an interview and jumps over the wall of the German Embassy in Beijing. He ends up in South Korea without really intending to defect. Through a broker, he tries to bring his wife and son to the South, but while he is away, his wife dies. Yong-su barely gets in touch with his son, but he dies in the middle of the desert while crossing the Mongolian border.
There are 13,000 North Korean defectors living in the South. Each and every one has a story as dramatic as a movie or a novel. Their stories might be different in detail, but with a few exceptions, they all crossed the border because of extreme food shortages in the North. They decided to defect out of desperation because they thought they would die one way or another.
The tragedy of Yong-su’s family in the film started from food. If Yong-su’s wife could have had decent meals, she would not have gotten sick. And Yong-su wouldn’t have had to cross the border.
“I gathered wild vegetables and firewood in the mountains and sold them at a market. Some days, I would make about 5 cents, but there were unlucky days when I would return home empty-handed. When I was so hungry and became dizzy, I focused on one thing. Let’s find some herbs and wood and make some porridge. But after four days of not having any food, I could not see clearly. I could no longer drag myself to school. I was so hungry I could not study or pay attention to the teacher. Food was the only thing on my mind.”
A 24-year-old North Korean defector Kim Tae-geum (an alias) tells her story in “In Order to Live Here,” a collection of testimonies by defectors published by Doctors Without Borders in 2005. Another defector witnessed the open executions of his aunt and uncle for killing and eating a pig they had been raising. The reality is harsher and crueler than the film.
South Korea has been noisy about U.S. beef imports for more than two months, and it started from food safety. In North Korea, where millions of residents are starving and families are falling apart, food is a matter of life and death. If we reduce food waste, we can save trillions of won every year, enough money to rescue North Korean residents from starvation. I think it is a luxury to worry about mad cow disease.
As the United States is to provide 500,000 tons of food to the North, the Korean government is now fretting over food aid in a belated reaction. On the day when the U.S. ship, the Baltimore, arrived at the port of Nampo and began unloading 37,000 tons of wheat flour, Seoul announced that Pyongyang officially turned down its offer to provide 50,000 tons of corn. The government even said that the South will provide food unconditionally if Pyongyang designates the time and place. It once proclaimed that the South cannot give any aid unless the North asks for help first. But now, the government is urging the North to accept assistance, ready to pour out help.
Of course, the Kim Jong-il regime is fundamentally responsible for the food crisis in the North. It might hurt its pride, but it is only ethical for Pyongyang to accept the South’s corn and save its starving residents. However, if food aid is coming from the United States on a large scale, why would Pyongyang lower itself and accept help from the South? Seoul would act the same way if it were in such a position.
There is no sin more serious than playing with food in front of a hungry man. If Seoul is sincerely willing to help North Korean residents, there is no reason to wait. The aid can be sent through international organizations like the World Food Program.
The candlelight vigils provide another chance for South Koreans to help their brethren in the North. If the protestors want to continue to light candles, they can bring a cup of rice to each vigil. They can collect the rice and send it to the North in the name of the candlelight vigils. Yong-su cried, “Why is Jesus only in the South?” We should help North Koreans in response to such cries.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok