Two Koreas must reach across wide gulf of cultures

Chasms in income, customs toughen unification challenge

June 09, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - Like most North Koreans, Kim Gun Il believed what his leaders had told him: South Korea was an impoverished American colony. When he arrived in Seoul in 1998, he was stunned to find the enemy capital filled with skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and a seemingly endless underground shopping mall.

Noticing teen-agers wearing cut-off shorts, he assumed that they were poor rather than fashionable.

"I was told South Korea was full of beggars," said Kim, 21, who fled North Korea after his father died of hunger. "It's unthinkable in North Korea that when people are starving to death, you would cut your trousers. Although the two Koreas are the same nation, the food, language, the way of thinking are so different."

Next week South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will begin to try to close the chasm that has divided their people and their land for more than 50 years. The two men are scheduled to meet during a three-day summit - the first since the peninsula split at the end of World War II.

The bitter Cold War rivals have set a modest agenda for their meetings, which will start Monday in the North's capital of Pyongyang. But the most daunting challenge - reunification - looms in the distance.

Over the past five decades, the two sides have developed huge economic, cultural and political differences, leaving many to wonder how and when they will come together. South Korea's per capita gross domestic product is $8,581 - about 11 times North Korea's $741.

In Seoul, many teen-agers have several e-mail accounts and a cellular phone. In North Korea, most people don't know that men have walked on the moon.

Over the past half-century, about 1,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea, mostly starting through the North's porous border with China. Their observations and experiences provide glimpses into the world's most reclusive nation as well as a preview of the pitfalls along the road to reunification.

In recent years, North Koreans have painted a bleak picture of their homeland. Drought and a failed command economy plunged the nation into famine during the mid-1990s, costing from several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million lives.

Fleeing to China

Many who tried to escape hunger and Pyongyang's totalitarian regime have gone into hiding in the mountains of northeast China or been captured and sent home to prison. Government and aid agencies estimate that anywhere from 10,000 to 300,000 Northerners live illegally in China.

One 34-year-old who left in 1998 lives in Seoul as Rhyu Chi Sung, a false name he assumed out of fear that authorities in Pyongyang would take revenge on his family if they knew their identity. A former government employee, he began to lose faith in the regime in 1988 after he heard a South Korean report on his contraband radio, which said Seoul was to be the host of the Olympics.

Rhyu first crossed the Chinese border in 1997. The Chinese, who do not regard North Koreans as legitimate refugees, captured him and sent him back. At a North Korean prison, guards beat the inmates so hard that one spit blood, Rhyu said. As many as 25 were piled into a cell and survived on a concoction of corn and salt water, he said.

Rhyu said he was transferred to a holding facility in Pyongyang where the moans of political prisoners kept him up at night. Inmates swallowed broken chopsticks and needles in hopes of getting transferred to a hospital and avoiding classification as a traitor for leaving the country.

"I don't think that people can imagine how North Koreans have suffered," he said.

Because Rhyu had an otherwise good record, he convinced officials that he had left to make money and intended to return. After his release, he fled again, eventually making his way to South Korea through Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.

Despite his travels, Rhyu wasn't prepared for the pace of life and range of choices in Seoul, a fast-moving capitalist city of about 13 million. He recently signed up for a free phone with Internet service, only to find a better deal a few days later.

Pyongyang didn't present such problems. When Rhyu left in 1998, no one had a cell phone, and the city had fewer than 10,000 fixed phone lines.

`A huge culture shock'

Once in the South, he said: "It was such a huge culture shock. I had insomnia. The pace of information is so fast, I can't keep up."

Rhyu eventually started a business selling wholesale children's clothing, but most other North Koreans have not done as well. For many, arriving in the South has been like moving to another planet.

Unprepared to compete in a market economy, they often can't hold jobs and some turn to crime. Others have lost huge sums in get-rich-quick schemes. A few have committed suicide.

Colleagues and employers complain that they don't work hard enough or show enough initiative. Some stumble while trying to understand the southern version of their language after more than a half-century apart.

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