Defectors the best civilian diplomatsSome scenes are forever remembered. The photo taken during the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students at a hastily-made 150,000-seat May Day Stadium in Pyongyang in early July 1989 is one of them. The only South Korean participant - Lim Su-kyung, then-senior of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who defied Seoul’s ban and secretly entered Pyongyang - is embraced by North Korea’s founder and leader Kim Il Sung in the picture.
The past, and that particular photo, came to haunt Lim, who upon returning to Seoul served two years and six months of a five-year prison term for breaking the National Security Law.
Lim, who became a lawmaker representing the main opposition Democratic Party, recently lost a defamation suit against ruling party members who claimed she addressed Kim Il Sung as “father” - who is still referred to as “Eternal Great Father” by North Koreans - during her unauthorized stay in Pyongyang.
The court ruled in favor of Saenuri Party lawmakers, saying there were credible circumstantial reasons to believe she made such an address to Kim. The photo has long served as a yardstick to draw the ideological line between the left and right. The left saw it as symbol of “inter-Korean reconciliation,” while the right used it to attack pro-unification activists as pro-Pyongyang. But the story behind the photo can provide clues to the truth.
North Korea’s economy receded from 1990 to 1998, according to the Bank of Korea. The economic gap between the two Koreas sharply widened during this period. North Korea blames it on the collapse of the Communist bloc and U.S. economic sanctions. Its claim holds some truth. China in 1989 had been frantically busy trying to calm outcry at home and abroad about its action against the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in June. The following year, the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way for German reunification in 1990. The Soviet Union was also dissolved in 1991. North Korea suffered poor crop yields due to drought and flooding throughout 1994 until 1997. The country was also slapped with trade sanctions as a penalty for leaving the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1994. Millions of people are estimated to have died from malnutrition during this period called the “Arduous March.”
But there was another humiliating factor North Korea hates to admit: Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics came as a shock to Kim Il Sung. He hastily ordered the World Youth Festival, inviting a huge number of guests to offset the Seoul Olympics opening ceremony. The Hankyoreh Newspaper carried an interview with a Korean-American journalist who visited Pyongyang on March 15, 1989 to detail preparations for the event.
“North Korea squeezed out all it has to host a more spectacular event than the Seoul Olympics ... It spent $4.7 billion on construction alone. A number of 12-story buildings on both sides of the streets were miraculously extended to 22-story high-rises.”
The spending far exceeded 2.38 trillion won ($3.5 billion at the time) which Seoul spent on Olympic preparations. Pyongyang used up its fiscal savings for exhibitionist vanity. And the consequences were drastic. South Korea’s economy doubled nine years after the Olympics, while North Korea’s shriveled on a nine-consecutive-year contraction. It became a wreck with empty fiscal coffers and cuts in foreign aid due to international sanctions and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s Communist bloc.
The inter-Korean relationship must be studied in long-term view. During our current stage of deadlock, we may have to pay greater attention to improve settlements for North Korean defectors. A large number of the 25,000 defectors living in the South transfers money to their families in the North. Goh Yoo-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University, said North Koreans called the money from ethnic Koreans in Japan “a flow from Mount Fuji,” but they now rely on “a flow from Mount Halla.” North Korean defectors secretly communicate with the families they left behind through Chinese mobile phone lines. What they talk about could have bigger ramifications. Most of them give accounts of life in the South, saying that making money is easy, but living is hard due to the social prejudices against them.
German reunification was possible after the Berlin Wall came down because the East German legislature proposed to integrate with the West first. However, would North Koreans wish to unite with South Korea or prefer to go under China when their regime comes down? Few can tell. When their lives and future of their children are at stake, they would believe what they see and hear. Who would want to live in South Korea when what they heard all along was how harsh life can be in here? There should be more lawmakers from North Korea, more doctors authorized to practice with degrees from North Korea. Defectors are the best civilian diplomats for peaceful unification.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho