January 11, 2012 13:51
My father, who died 25 years ago, was born in Jongju, North Pyongan Province. He was always proud of his hometown, saying it was the birthplace of many great people. It was a poor town but filled with fond memories and the true home my father wished to make his final resting place.
Three years ago I met a Korean Japanese who moved to North Korea but ended up defecting from Sinuiju close to the border with China. I asked him about my father's hometown, which is close to Sinuiju. The defector said, "About 10 years ago I saw the bodies of people who died of hunger littering a hill in Jongju." That was all he said. For him, my father's hometown was just another part of North Korea that had grown weary of despotism and drought. There was no trace of the fondness my father often talked about.
A friend of my father's from Jongju visited North Korea nine years ago. He was a devout Christian and an avid supporter of former president Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea. He voiced disappointment with North Korea the day after he returned to the South. "Adults in North Korea are the same height as junior high school students here," he said. "Wouldn't it be better to achieve reunification as soon as possible, even by launching a limited attack? Would we be able to stop the chaos there if 1 million Christians rushed over to North Korea and make them believe?" Perhaps he was just rambling. He never said he had changed his political views after his visit to the North, but one thing was clear: The memories he had of North Korea had been shattered. That's when I thought, "Perhaps my father was happier than I am, since he was able to keep his fond memories of North Korea."
How many children of the North Korean diaspora actually long for North Korea as their parents did? Honestly, my image of North Korea is not that different from the picture of the North painted by the defector. My father missed his father and the siblings he had left behind in North Korea, but I am quite nervous at the thought of some strangers from North Korea knocking at my door after reunification telling me they are my relatives. As much as he detested the communism that took away his hometown, my father worried about the blind decadence that could taint South Korean capitalism. But I am more concerned about the streets of my hometown Seoul being filled with poor and disillusioned strangers from the North. My father was willing to spend his entire savings on his hometown, but I am not willing to do that. Compared to my father, I am selfish and cowardly.
Whenever we talk about reunification, the first thing on our mind is the financial burden South Korea would face. People say that the share price of Samsung Electronics will plummet if the North Korean regime collapses. They say that South Korea's economy needs to grow further in order to be able to feed 23 million North Koreans. They claim that we must accept the reality of North Korea, even though a youngster in his 20s becomes the country's highest-ranking military official overnight, and even if another million people there starve to death again. It all boils down to the same sentiment: "It's still too early for reunification." Really? Or are we just too scared and selfish to take the leap?
I believe that reunification should have occurred during my father's generation, when there were people who really wanted it to happen. We may have been poorer, but there were many more people back then who were willing to share what little they had. If we are more concerned about the share price of Samsung Electronics than we are about reunification, then we will never be able to become one nation.
Perhaps we are unable to achieve reunification not because North Korea refuses to embrace reforms but because it is us who are unwilling to change. It is no use pointing the finger at others. We have to change first.
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