By Aidan Foster-Carter
These days change comes thick and fast out of
North Korea. Take Sunday's images alone. The front page
of the website of Chosun Ilbo, Seoul's leading
conservative daily, features two photographs of young
North Korean women. No, not the squad of sexy
cheerleaders who've been wowing fans at the Asian Games
in Busan; in tech-happy South Korea, drooling websites
are sprouting. Still, this is a politically
mind-boggling spectacle as well as eye-catching:
unimaginable until now.
One picture is of Ham
Bong-sil, who on Sunday won the women's marathon to
clinch a creditable ninth place overall for North Korea
in the Asiad: nine golds, 11 silvers, 12 bronzes. She
looks great, hair swept back in the wind. Two logos
adorn her vest. A small Democratic People's Republic of
Korea (DPRK) flag, still technically illegal in the
South: it's been allowed for the games, obviously, but
you won't find it on the Asiad website. And below the
flag, a much bigger sponsorship ad - for SK Telecom,
South Korea's market leader in mobile service.
Excuse me while I pinch myself. No, it's still
there. This is what it was like when Samsung and LG ads
started popping up in China - airport baggage carts a
specialty - way before the People's Republic of China
and Republic of Korea (ROK) tied the knot
diplomatically. Suddenly, we knew things were going to
be different. From zero contact to - well, a semblance
of normality. Or at least an inkling of what normality
will look like, when it comes.
The other picture
is also of North Koreans in the South, and they look
pretty happy too. Or relieved. Twenty of them arrived at
Seoul's Incheon International Airport on Saturday from
Beijing, via Manila. Fifteen were female; several seemed
just teenagers. Unlike Ham, and the cheerleaders who on
Tuesday were due to sail home from Busan's Tadaepo port
on the boat that has been home throughout their trip -
some reportedly got seasick - this group are on one-way
tickets. For these are the latest batch of North Korean
refugees who've managed to reach sanctuary in foreign
missions in Beijing. The tacit deal now is that China
lets them go, provided awkward publicity is avoided.
They are the lucky ones. The other side of the coin is a
tough crackdown in the border region, with many
deportations each day. But still they keep on coming,
and they won't go away. Neither China nor North Korea
can stop them.
Two faces of North Korea. Which
is real? Both, of course. The challenge is to construct
the big picture into which these seemingly contrary
images fit. "All reality is contradictory," said
Chairman Mao; and I'm with the Great Helmsman on that,
if nothing else. The paradoxes continue. Tadaepo, where
North Korea's ship Mankyungbong-92 and its comely crew
have pitched anchor this past fortnight, in 1983 saw
some less friendly Northern visitors come ashore. Three
agents were killed and two captured.
weekend news. If I mention Sinuiju, you'll know to have
a large pinch of salt at the ready. What a saga! My last
column (Stop fief: Was Sinuiju thought
through?, October 2) was skeptical, but little did
we know then that the egregious Yang Bin - he of the
alleged US$900 million fortune but an unpaid $1.2
million Chinese tax bill, promising all manner of
over-the-top vistas for a "free" zone that no one (it
turned out) could even get into - would be put under
house arrest by China. What a slap in the face for Kim
Jong-il from Big Uncle, furious at being out of the
loop. No wonder the Dear Leader is heading there next
month, right after China's National People's Congress.
Besides meeting President Jiang Zemin's expected
successor Hu Jintao, there'll be some fence-mending to
But that's not all. A separate story this
weekend in the Korea Times claims that the post of
governor of Sinuiju has now been offered instead to -
wait for it - a South Korean. And not any old South
Korean, either. Certainly not a dissident or anyone
remotely pro-Pyongyang. No, the rumored invitee is none
other than Park Tae-joon: a recent ROK prime minister,
but more to the point the former chairman of Posco, the
world's largest steelmaker. Posco's rise under Park from
nowhere to global leader is known to have impressed
North Korea, whose own once-proud steel sector is now
rusting like everything else.
Could Park take
the job? He's said to be thinking seriously about it,
but there are one or two problems. He's 75, and only
just recovering from a lung operation. Then there's
South Korea's absurd National Security Law - absurd,
because the whole of Kim Dae-jung's peace process is
technically illegal. If not even the Northern flag may
fly as a rule, could a South Korean swear an oath of
loyalty to the DPRK?
Again, the mind boggles -
but the heart leaps. I really hope this story is true.
If it is, I really hope Park takes the job. And I really
hope no government in Seoul, either this or the next
(probably more right-wing) to be elected in December,
will be so short-sighted as to stop him. Unlike Yang
Bin, Park is a seasoned and successful businessman whose
creation has stood the test of time. If anyone can make
Sinuiju fly, he can. But above all - recall that this is
after all only a rumor - he's a South Korean. Ever
wondered what Korean reunification will look like? Like
this. It starts here.
And the big picture, the
overarching framework into which all this fits? Umm ...
still working on that. But one thing's for sure. North
Korea is in flux as never before. I doubt Kim Jong-il
has a master plan; just look at the Yang Bin fiasco.
Hold on to your hats; it promises to be a wild ride.
What will be next?
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