Free as a
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
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.
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
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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