Birth of S. Korean baby in North seen as sign of unification

November 20, 2005|By BARBARA DEMICK | BARBARA DEMICK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- While watching child gymnasts tumble in unison across the field of Kim Il Sung Stadium in a performance heralding the miracle of the North Korean economy, Hwang Seon felt a sharp pain in her abdomen.

Within minutes, the 32-year-old South Korean tourist was whisked by ambulance across town to Pyongyang's maternity hospital. There, doctors delivered a 7-pound, 6-ounce girl who has become an instant celebrity and rare source of optimism in this often-forlorn North Korean capital.

The newborn is the first baby born in the North as a South Korean citizen. Her birth Oct. 10 has been hailed as a mystical sign that the half-century-long division of the Korean Peninsula is ending.

"Our precious unification baby girl," is how North Korea's official KCNA news put it.

Hwang, who was more than eight months pregnant when she traveled to North Korea, spent two weeks recuperating in the maternity hospital, where she was treated without charge to around-the-clock nursing care. Her meals included seaweed soup, a Korean traditional postpartum treatment.

North Koreans suggested naming the baby "Tongil," or "reunification"; but because that sounded like a boy's name, the parents instead opted for "Kyoreh," meaning "one people."

"Everybody said her birth was a lucky omen for the Korean people," explained Hwang, a left-wing political activist who favors rapprochement with the North.

Hwang and her daughter are only the best-known South Koreans to have spent time in Pyongyang lately.

From late September until earlier this month, visitors from the South came in unprecedented numbers to view mass games marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party.

In October, 7,203 South Koreans flew to North Korea on nearly 100 nonstop flights connecting the estranged neighbors.

For the first time, planes of South Korea's leading carriers, Korea Air and Asiana Air, became regular sights on the tarmac of Pyongyang's seldom-visited Sunam airport.

North Korea's national carrier, Air Koryo, was reciprocally a frequent visitor to Incheon, South Korea. In the past, there have been only occasional charter flights between the airports for events.

The South Koreans were not permitted to go out unescorted - and had to wear large nametags around their necks identifying themselves.

While North Koreans trudged through the empty boulevards on foot, the South Koreans were transported in fancy tour buses, some of which sported color television monitors and video recorders.

At one point, a disoriented man in his 80s, born north of the border, tried to wander out of a Pyongyang hotel in search of his home village, but was blocked by a courteous but insistent North Korean doorman, according to a South Korean visitor who witnessed the encounter.

The games were blatantly designed to tug at the heartstrings of South Koreans. Named "Arirang" after a popular Korean folk song, the program was replete with sentimental tunes and operatic skits about separated families reaching for one another across barbed wire.

The show used more than 100,000 performers, many of them holding colored cards to make up intricate human mosaics in the backdrop.

The finale used a backdrop of doves with a message: "The last wish of the father [referring to the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung] is reunification of the fatherland."

When North Koreans speak of reunification, their meaning is radically different than what Americans might think in recalling the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the absorption of the Communist East by West Germany.

Instead, North Koreans describe a loose confederation into which their nation would keep its own system of government while receiving extensive economic aid from the Suth.

"We don't want what happened in Germany," said tour guide Pak Gyong Nam, as he showed visitors a 185-foot-high stone arch made up of two women in traditional Korean costume (one representing each Korea) touching hands across a broad thoroughfare known as Reunification Street. "We would be one country, but two governments.

"If Korea is reunified," he continued, "South Korea will bring in technology and investment. We have great confidence in the future. If we are reunited, no problem."

The sentiment explains in large part why North Koreans were so enthusiastic about the so-called unification baby.

"Have you heard about the South Korean woman who gave birth?" asked Kim Kyoung Kil, a North Korean lieutenant colonel who was showing tourists around the demilitarized zone the day after Hwang and her newborn crossed on their way back to Seoul. "It means reunification is near. Only the Americans are preventing it."

The baby's birth (which took place on the exact date of the 60th anniversary of the Workers' Party founding) fits so perfectly into North Korean propaganda that many suspect it was contrived.

Hwang denies that. She says she had scheduled a Caesarean section in Seoul for the following week, and was not due for 20 days when she made the trip.

Hwang Seon, a former student radical, served 34 months in South Korean prisons largely because she made an unauthorized trip to North Korea in 1998.

"The last time I came back [to South Korea] from North Korea, the National Intelligence Service was waiting for me to arrest me," Hwang recalled. "This time, I held my baby in my arms and was welcomed back with flowers."

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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