On July 1, 1989, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung delivered his opening remarks at the newly-constructed May Day Stadium in Pyongyang for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. The stadium was packed with fellow North Koreans and Festival attendees from abroad.
But despite the presence of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and guests from abroad including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, it was a previously-unknown girl from South Korea who would really steal the show.
As she stepped out into the stadium, Lim Su-kyung — dubbed “The Flower of Unification” by Pyongyang’s propagandists — was welcomed with thunderous cheers. She even received a standing ovation from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il themselves.
A French major at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, twenty-year-old Lim was the sole representative from South Korea among the numerous other attendees from a total of (according to North Korea’s Party daily the Rodong Sinmun) 179 countries at the Festival.
As she pointed out a day earlier to the crowd of North Koreans that gathered to greet her upon arrival at Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport, it would have only taken her a couple of hours to get to the Festival from Seoul by car.
However, since the-then Roh Tae-woo government had barred South Koreans from attending the Festival, Lim had to embark on a ten-day journey across the world and back to the Korean peninsula. She traveled from Seoul to Tokyo to West Germany, then crossed over to East Germany where she took a flight to Pyongyang.
But on her return home, she vowed, she would not go through third countries. Instead, she would simply walk across the demarcation line at Panmunjom and back into South Korea — and “if the South Korean authorities do not accept me at Panmunjom, I will return via Panmunjom even in a struggle against death.”
How did all this commotion come about in the first place?
A year earlier in 1988, Seoul was about to host the Summer Olympics, showcasing to the world its three decades of progress from the war-torn country of the 1950s to the economic powerhouse it had become. However, while the Olympics was to be a massive success for the South, it was shaping up to be a diplomatic disaster for the North.
The DPRK had decided to boycott the Southern-hosted ‘88 Olympics, but found no support in its endeavors from its ‘allies’ the Soviet Union and China – a particular slap in the face from Moscow perhaps, bearing in mind Pyongyang had joined its boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Only Cuba and a few others joined North Korea in 1988.
Amid those frosty inter-Korean relations, however, President Roh Tae-woo on July 7, 1988 announced in a speech – known as the ‘7.7 Declaration’ — that South Korea would seek friendlier relations with the North. Among other things, Roh vowed to “actively promote exchanges between the people of South and North Korea, including politicians, businessmen, journalists, religious leaders, cultural leaders, artists, academics, sportsmen and students.”
The South Korean President had been under pressure from student protests to move unification up the agenda, and the move received praise from across the political spectrum.
You could also argue that the timing, just before the Olympics got underway, was designed to reduce tensions in order to prevent some kind of violent backlash from North Korea during the world’s biggest sporting event. After all, only a few months earlier on November 29, 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 had been destroyed by a bomb planted by two North Korean agents, killing all on board.
One of the agents committed suicide after the event, but the other, Kim Hyun Hee, confessed at a news conference on January 15, 1988 that the attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il with the aim of disrupting the upcoming Olympics.
Regardless, it was following Roh’s speech that the South Korean National Council of Student Representatives received an invitation through the South Korean Red Cross on December 26 to the 1989 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang — widely regarded as North Korea’s answer to the Seoul Olympics. They responded in the affirmative the following month.
North Korean propaganda spun the visit as a great victory
However, it soon became apparent that, despite the Roh administration’s calls for increased inter-Korean exchange, visits to the North would still be restricted.
While Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung’s visit in February 1989 was permitted, the National Council of Student Representatives’s hopes were ultimately dashed when the Ministry of Education on June 6 announced that they would not be able to send a delegation to the Festival on the grounds that it was going to be a “propaganda venue for inciting anti-ROK anti-U.S. struggle.”
Nearing the eve of the Festival’s opening ceremony, President Roh in a news conference on June 28 reiterated his intention to prevent South Korean attendance.
He asserted that the Festival was a propaganda exercise and accused North Korea of encouraging “leftist agitation” in the South – a fair assumption perhaps, bearing in mind the North’s “Anti United States Month” had just started a couple of days ago on June 25 (the anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War in 1950).
The Roh government had also punished those who went to the North without authorization. On March 25, Reverend Moon Ik-hwan arrived in North Korea, even meeting with Kim Il Sung himself twice.
Upon his return to South Korea, he justified his actions by citing the 7.7 Declaration’s aim of promoting inter-Korean exchanges between religious leaders, but was still arrested and received a five-year prison sentence.
Despite this very recent precedent of punishment for unauthorized visits to North Korea, Lim Su-kyung was undeterred. Even if the National Council of Student Representatives’s delegation comprised of just her, she would still be attending the Festival.
After the Festival’s opening ceremony, Lim attended various activities and held a number of press conferences. Her main theme, along with condemnations of the Roh Tae-woo government and calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, was emphasizing the need for unification – hence she was dubbed the ‘Flower of Unification’ by the North Korean media.
Her calls for unification were made on the basis that Koreans, whether from North or South, were still all Koreans one and the same. She also argued that North and South needed to overcome their differences in ideology and focus more on their oneness as a people.
At her second press conference July 3, Lim elaborated on her plans to return to South Korea. Her journey would be laden with symbolism: after the Festival had finished, she would join the ‘Great March’ that was to start from Mount Paektu (the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula and located on its northern border, where North Korea claims Kim Il Sung fought the Japanese during the 1940s, and also where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born) that was to finish at Mount Halla (the highest mountain in South Korea, located on Jeju Island, near the southern-most point of ROK territory).
She would then step across the North-South Korea border on July 27, the day the Korean War armistice was signed, through Panmunjom, the place where that armistice was signed and a permanent reminder of the separation of the Korean people.
“I will always be living in all your hearts forever. I will be living together with you all in the history of our unified homeland. We are bound to win on the road to the unified homeland.”
This was to be a propaganda win for Pyongyang. After all, it was they who were facilitating Lim Su-kyung’s passage from North to South. And if Lim was refused entry at Panmunjom, it would show the world that South Korea and the U.S. were the ones that were preventing the free movement of the Korean people from one part of their homeland to the other.
This is exactly what happened. On July 27, Lim was prevented from crossing the North-South border, and so she and many others who had come with her on the ‘Great March’ went on hunger strike in protest.
The Rodong Sinmun denounced South Korea and the Americans for denying Lim passage through Panmunjom, arguing that if “Lim Su-kyung’s safety had been guaranteed and she had been allowed to return through Panmunjom as she demanded, there would have been no hunger strike.”
The paper even quoted Shin Byung Taek, a medical doctor, who said that “as a doctor responsible for human life… the fundamental key to this problem’s resolution is that the U.S. military and South Korean authorities accept Lim Su-kyung’s demands with human conscience and rationality.”
Lim’s hunger strike came to an end after she blacked out on the fifth day. However, another anniversary of similar historical significance was coming up: Liberation Day (from the Japanese Empire) on August 15. This was when she would make her second attempt at crossing into the South.
On August 14, Lim headed to Pyongyang Station to take the train for Panmunjom. Wearing a chima jeogori (a form of traditional Korean dress), she was driven through Kim Il Sung Square in an open-top car and sent off by a huge crowd of cheering North Koreans. From the car, she took hold of a microphone and bid a fond farewell to the people of North Korea.
“I will always be living in all your hearts forever. I will be living together with you all in the history of our unified homeland. We are bound to win on the road to the unified homeland. I firmly pledge before history and the people to devote myself and fight to the end for unification.”
The next day, on August 15, Liberation Day 1989, the Flower of Unification said her goodbyes to those who had gathered to say their goodbyes. Then, tears in her eyes, she stepped across the demarcation line into South Korea, where she was immediately arrested on charges of violating South Korea’s National Security Law.
Lim Su-kyung’s Pyongyang visit, her crossing at Panmunjom, and her subsequent arrest had been and continued to be heavily publicized by North Korean propaganda to show that it was South Korea and the U.S., not North Korea, that were the ones who were building barriers between the Korean people.
However, another one of Lim’s lasting impacts was rather unintended.
Although Lim’s numerous speeches were anti-U.S. and anti-Roh Tae-woo in nature, it seems it was less what North Koreans heard and more what they saw that made the biggest impression on people.
Back at that opening ceremony, Lim walked out into the May Day Stadium in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. She was pretty, outspoken, and charismatic.
This was not the image that North Koreans had when they thought of their Southern brethren, who they had been told were living an oppressed existence under the rule of the American imperialists and their South Korean puppet regime.
Lim’s appearances in North Korean state media had inadvertently served to break down some preconceptions about South Koreans. According to one defector, since speeches were “not normally made by women” in North Korea, and Lim made “powerful speeches without any embarrassment and without a script,” to “say she looked ‘cool’ really doesn’t do it justice.”
Another defector went as far as to say that her manner of speaking made her come to be thought of as a “symbol of freedom.”
In fact, Lim also became something of a fashion icon. Monique Macias, an Equatorial Guinea national who grew up in North Korea, says in her book ‘I am Monique from Pyongyang’ (나는 평양의 모니카입니다) that many young women came to take inspiration from her short bobbed haircut (Lim-style jeans were extremely difficult to get ahold of though).
It seems it was less what North Koreans heard and more what they saw that made the biggest impression on people
Another big shock to North Koreans was when KCNA reported on June 11, 1990 that Lim had received a five-year prison sentence from the “fascist Roh Tae-woo gang.”
This may have seemed incredibly lenient. Remember: she had illegally crossed over into enemy territory and spent nearly a month criticizing her own government.
It must have been hard to imagine, say, a North Korean crossing into the South to watch the Olympics, delivering speeches criticizing Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and then returning to the North to be faced with only five years in prison.
There must have been similar surprise when an interview with Lim’s parents appeared in the Rodong Sinmun on December 14 later that year.
They were quoted as thanking the North Korean people for their concern over their daughter, yes – but we may assume that in North Korea a political crime of this magnitude would have resulted in the punishment of the person’s family as well. Yet there they were, safe and sound in their home in Seoul.
To round it all off, North Korean state media even reported on Lim’s early release from prison on December 24, 1992 – after only having served three years and 5 months of her initial sentence.
There are a multitude of ways to look at Lim’s activities in North Korea. Did she merely become used as a tool of North Korea’s anti-South Korea, anti-U.S. propaganda machine? Or did her contact with North Koreans serve a positive role, breaking down preconceptions about what South Koreans were really like?
Whichever way you look at it, one thing is clear: the story of the “Flower of Unification” illustrates just how close, and yet just how far apart, the two Koreas were and remain to this very day.
Lim later went on to be elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in April 2012, and even returned to North Korea, this time as part of an authorized delegation for the National Unification Grand Festival on August 15-16, 2001. This was during the administration of President Kim Dae-jung, of inter-Korean ‘Sunshine Policy’ fame.
She was not to be the star of the show this time around though — presumably because the North Korean regime was wary of the unintended effects her last visit had had.
Lim is still around on the South Korean political scene: she found herself in hot water a few years ago when she reportedly referred to North Korean defectors as “traitors” (she later apologized for the incident).
Her visit to the North has basically become a blip in the general flow of inter-Korean history. It’s been over thirty years since the Festival, Korea is still divided, and North and South remain at odds.
And despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s historic step across the demarcation line and back again with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April 2018, the National Security Law still remains in place. Any South Korean civilian attempting their own Lim Su-kyung moment would likely still be faced with a Lim Su-kyung prison sentence.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
On July 1, 1989, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung delivered his opening remarks at the newly-constructed May Day Stadium in Pyongyang for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. The stadium was packed with fellow North Koreans and Festival attendees from abroad.But despite the presence of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and guests from abroad including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, it was a
James Fretwell is Editorial Assistant at NK News. He is also a graduate student at Yonsei University in Seoul, majoring in Korean History and specializing in U.S.-DPRK relations. Follow him on Twitter @JamesFretwe11 or get in touch at [email protected]