Free as a bird?
By Aidan Foster-Carter

A strange thing, this evolution. Who hasn't envied birds their ability to fly? In Korea this has an extra twist. Mankind, being a superior life form, has created an impassable barrier across the peninsula: the wittily named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The planet's most fortified border is no frontier: it splits one nation in two.

Not a problem for our feathered friends, who simply fly over. Indeed the DMZ is good news for birds. The no man's land between the lines, untrod by humans for half a century, has become a kind of nature reserve. All sorts of fauna and flora, crowded out by so-called development, here flourish undisturbed.

No barrier existed when Won Pyong-oh was born, 73 years ago. He grew up not far north of Seoul - but far enough to be on the other side when the US and USSR created the first intra-Korean border, at the 38th parallel, in 1945. So it was to Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang that young Pyong-oh went in 1947, to study agriculture. His father, Dr Won Hong-gu, was already a prominent animal scientist.

Then came war. For two moments in 1950 - when the Korean People's Army (KPA) swept south, and when United Nations forces briefly occupied most of the north before China came in to save Kim Il-sung's neck - those on each side of the line had a chance to move. It wasn't easy, nor always voluntary: the retreating Northern army abducted thousands of Southern experts it thought might be of use. In the other direction there was less coercion; just a quick and agonizing decision. Pyong-oh and two of his brothers went south. A political choice? To avoid the draft? Or just to get away from the front line? Who knows. His parents and one brother remained in the North. Tens of thousands of families were separated in this way.

Time passed. Pyong-oh in turn became Dr Won, and a leading South Korean ornithologist. One of his projects was to track migratory patterns. In 1963, he tagged a Daurian mynah - which summers in Korea - with an aluminum ring numbered C7655. Two years later he heard from BirdLife International in Tokyo, which coordinates such matters, that C7655 had turned up again - in Pyongyang.

You guessed, didn't you? The Northern ornithologist who found it was none other than Won Hong-gu. After 15 years, father and son at least each knew the other was alive. But that was as far as it went. Then as now you couldn't write letters, much less visit. Dr Won Sr died soon after, in 1970, calling out his son's name on his deathbed. He'd done well: director of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of parliament (MP), honored with a special postage stamp, and buried in Pyongyang's national patriots' cemetery. Pyong-oh's mother followed him in 1973. She'd kept that metal ring, often holding it and weeping.

End of story? Not quite. In Korea, the old ways live on. A good Confucian son has to tend his parents' grave. In 1989, Won Pyong-oh was invited to North Korea - by none other than Kim Il-sung - but the South wouldn't let him go. Shame on them. Another decade passed. Family reunions began, but too late for the Wons. Too late for most people, indeed. According to Seoul's Unification Ministry, of 118,014 (out of an estimated 7.6 million Southerners of Northern origin or descent) who've applied for reunions, just 3,273 - under 3 percent - have gotten lucky so far; if indeed these brief, one time only, very public meetings can be deemed as good fortune. Four times as many, some 14,600, have died before their turn came.

Finally, just a few weeks ago, Won Pyong-oh got to go home. In 2002 as in 1965, it took a foreign third party to make the contact. This time the intermediary was a German friend and fellow professor, who in May was interpreter for a parliamentary delegation visiting Pyongyang. They carried letters from Won to Kim Jong-il and others, asking to visit his parents' grave and initiate academic exchanges.

The reply was swift. An invitation from the North Korean Institute of Zoology came on May 17. On June 20, Won Pyong-oh at last went north. Just for a week, and by the usual circuitous route via Beijing. Yet his home town, the ancient capital Kaesong, is less than an hour from Seoul as the crow - or mynah - flies. He was also due to visit his parents' grave, and meet his sole surviving Northern kin, a great-nephew. His two brothers who came south are dead now, too. So all a bit late, really. But better late than never.

Yet like many a Korean, Dr Won's sense of public service outweighs his private grief. And at 73, this professor emeritus of Kyunghee University still has work to do. While in the North, he hoped to carry out a field study of wildlife as a first step for a project to protect the inter-Korean ecosystem. He told the Korea Herald he'd like to teach in the North, to pass on his knowledge and promote exchanges.

And it's still a family affair, now in its third generation. Won added: "My son, two daughters and their spouses all have doctorates in various disciplines. I hope we all can move to the North to teach there. I look forward to the day when people can freely travel between the two, just as birds do." Amen to that.

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Jul 12, 2002


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