Inter-Korean mailman goes legit

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Inter-Korean mailman goes legit

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Kim Kyung-jae explains about letters he has exchanged with his family in North Korea. He is pictured in Eulji-ro, central Seoul, on June 19. By Park Sang-moon


Kim Kyung-jae, an 80-year-old Korean who has been separated from his family since the 1950-53 Korean War, has been sending his North Korean sister letters and daily necessities for more than 10 years through his own secret routes and personal networks.

Now, using his own cat-and-mouse know-how for connecting to the world’s most reclusive regime, Kim has formed a private foundation with some other elderly men to help separated families communicate.

“Since 1996, I’ve been sending letters and daily necessities not only to my sister, but also to other North Korean people, per requests by their Southern families,” Kim said. “Many North Korean people want to meet with their separated families, not just because they miss them, but also they need money.”

Kim, who currently lives in Osaka, Japan, sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily for an interview in Seoul. Speaking with a unique North Korean accent, Kim said that he was born in South Hamgyong Province in the northeast of the country.

“In December 1950, I was 19-years-old and my sister was 10 years younger than me,” Kim said. “In the chaotic time of war, I was separated from my parents and sister, who stayed in our hometown. My parents died there and my sister is still alive.”

Kim said he had heard nothing about them until 1993, when then-leader Kim Il Sung allowed Koreans living in the United States to visit their homeland in North Korea.

“At the time, one of my hometown friends was one of those allowed to enter the North and found my sister was still alive and informed me,” Kim said. “I managed to obtain the exact address of my sister’s house in 1996.

“Since then, I have been communicating with her until now, through letters and phone calls.”

Even through frosty inter-Korean relations following a string of North Korean military attacks and provocations, Kim pursued his idea to form the first non-profit foundation to help support separated families. Approved by the Ministry of Unification on Feb. 28, Kim is now working with eight other people at an office in central Seoul.

“Those who are allowed to meet with their Northern families at the official reunion meetings don’t have any further chances to communicate with them afterwards,” Kim said. “In this sense, we determined to help them not as a government-run organization, but as a private foundation.”

Shim Goo-seob, a co-worker of his foundation, is a veteran communicator with the North. Shim officially met with his younger brother in 1994 in China. Since then, he has helped a bunch of South Koreans who couldn’t get official chances to meet their Northern families secretly.

“I have arranged private meetings of at least 120 pairs of separated families [in a third country] and helped those who were abducted to the North to defect to the South,” Shim said.

However, starting from 2008, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on imports into North Korea, sending most items to the North has been banned. “Since 2008, I can send only four clothes, six pairs of socks, four long johns and two pairs of shoes,” Kim said. “And that’s all.”

So Kim took another route for postings to the North: through China, which costs more money. He contacts ethnic Koreans or Chinese brokers and they send letters or posts received at local post offices in China on behalf of Kim.

“To post a box of products to the North from a Chinese post office, it costs about 150,000 won ($129), separate from commissions given to brokers, about 35,000 won,” Kim said. “It’s more expensive than when I send directly from Japan.”

“The Apnok River is a little bit wider than the Cheonggye Stream, central Seoul,” Shim said. “Some brokers simply throw letters tied to a stone or a log over the border, and their broker partners standing on the other side pick it up and give it to North Korean families.”

Most of daily necessities that North Koreans want are medicines for diseases, Kim said, including stroke and heart diseases, and also mosquito repellant.

“Most North Koreans want tuberculosis medicines,” Kim said. “And many also demand medicines for anemia, because they suffer from malnutrition.”

Most South Korean items Kim sent to his sister were old-fashioned or low-quality, but for his poor sister, they were high-fashioned and high-quality.

“Witnessing my sister getting rich, some North Korean people asked brokers to find their Southern families,” Kim said.

One of the popular items is a pair of training clothes. Shim said that he sent cheap training jackets and pants to the North, which cost only about $10 in the South, and North Koreans loved them. Used clothes are also welcomed.

Kim said the foundation aims to provide at least 100,000 won to each South Korean family who wants to send anything to the North. Currently, the Unification Ministry officially funds annually a certain amount of money to the foundation.

“The foundation was formed by those who are actually professional in finding separated families in the North, so we expect them to make good achievements in the upcoming future,” a Unification Ministry said.

By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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