Threads of Hope: The significance of growing inter-Korean connections

June 21st, 2012

The Korean War of 1950-1953 cemented the division of the Korean people and left thousands of families separated. The times before and during the conflict saw the continuous movement of refugees up and down the peninsula, following the ebb and flow of war and famine on the land. After 1953 the border between North and South Korea became less permeable and the movement of people across the 38th parallel ground to a virtual halt. The years following the Korean War witnessed the occasional defection, most often for political reasons and usually so-called ‘high-value’ defections. These included several high-ranking military personal and Hwang Jang-yop – the creator of North Korea’s Juche philosophy– who defected in 1997.

From the mid-90s, following periods of extensive famine, flooding and economic mismanagement on behalf of the North Korean government, the number of North Koreans leaving their homes and crossing the border into China grew exponentially. Over the last ten years the number of North Korean refugees arriving in South Korea has ballooned, thanks largely to the effects of chain migration and the development of improved networks from South Korea, through China and into North Korea. Currently, the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea is estimated at a little under 25,000.

The situation, in terms of exchange and general intercourse between the two Koreas, is commonly understood to be bordering on non-existent. With the exception of the occasional high-level talk, that inevitably fizzles out before it produces anything in terms of tangible results, North and South Korea are usually considered to exist in spite of each other, nose to nose, waiting for the other to blink; a stalemate most poignantly manifest at the truce village of Panmunjum, where troops from both sides face-off, waiting stoically for the end of the conflict.

The low level of inter-Korea communication is often considered to be so insignificant as to render comparisons to post-1961 Germany an absurdity. It is widely accepted that despite the Berlin Wall, the guards and landmines, there was, comparatively speaking, a great deal of intercourse, at both official and unofficial levels, between West and East Germany. Ordinary citizens were permitted to send letters to family on the other side, albeit heavily censored, applications were granted to visit family members and it was possible for East Germans, when the coast was clear, to tune into Western radio and TV. Indeed, it is this relatively free flow of information that is often pointed to as one of the primary causes leading to disgruntled citizens on the Eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie. The same people who, on the eve of November 10th 1989, would be found sitting, hands held high in defiance, on top of the Iron Curtain.

It is correct to say that the continuous exchange between Germans on both sides of the border played an integral role in the eventual reunification of the nation. It is also accurate to state that there was a great deal more of this exchange, on every level, than has ever occurred between North and South Korea. However, the assumption that the situation on the Korean peninsula is not, therefore, comparable to that of pre-1989 Germany, is incorrect.

The reality is that, over the last ten years, as the number of North Koreans leaving their homes and moving South through China has increased, the efficiency and the volume of exchange between individuals in North and South Korea has also grown and become more diverse in form. These connections, in much the same way as between the two Germanies, are manifest primarily in two ways: material and sensual links of a divided people.

Recently established material connections between the North and South have, of late, garnered some attention in the media. The occasional story will offer a few paragraphs to the development of connections using mobile phones smuggled into North Korea. These devices are used by both individuals and organizations to keep in contact with family, friends and informants. Further to the exchange in information facilitated by mobile phones, and rarely discussed, is the development of stable and experienced networks of brokers/smugglers, reaching into North Korea from China, allowing for the movement of such items as letters to and from home, food parcels, photographs and, as we are perhaps most familiar with, people.

These material connections are vital for ensuring information and goods continue to move back and forth between individuals. In some cases they offer much needed food and medical supplies, other times the comfort of seeing a picture of long-missed family members.

Further to the creation of material connections, a number of powerful sensual connections are also created and maintained on an almost daily basis, linking North Koreans in South Korea to friends and family above the 38th parallel.

In a number of churches, NGOs and smaller, independently formed groups across South Korea, many North Korean refugees meet regularly for the purpose of discussing the events of the day and catching up with friends. These frequent meetings are most often hosted by organizations that strive to create an atmosphere in which individuals are encouraged to become part of the group, to get involved with activities and build friendships. At many of these formal and informal meetings, food cooked in the North Korea style stimulates conversation and a group remembering to a time and place above the border– families, friends and hometowns, the tastes and smells of home, stories of military service and outings to the river. These sensual connections are created and maintained with each meeting, ensuring the hearts of many North Korean refugees remain in North Korea.

For many North Korean refugees, for individuals and families separated, the longing for home rarely disappears entirely. Connections between individuals in South Korea to those in North Korea have diversified and grown steadily since the early 2000s. These networks act as threads of hope for many, providing much needed news, material aid and emotional support for people who are separated from their families. Perhaps more importantly, is the power for change on a wider scale that these connections represent. Between the Germany’s of Cold War Europe, exchange between individuals significantly contributed towards ending the partition of the people. In the same vein, we should not underestimate the power for change that exists and continues to be shaped by the growing exchange and the continued emotional connections maintained by individuals in North and South Korea.

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About the Author

Markus Bell

Markus Bell  has lived in South Korea for six years, during which time he completed a masters in anthropology at Seoul National University, focusing on the lives of North Korean refugees in South Korea. He is currently a PhD candidate in the anthropology department atThe Australian National University, where he continues to move back and forth between Australia, China and Korea, carrying out research on transnationalism, identity, gender and nationalism as these concepts relate to North Koreans in China and South Korea.