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'Unification Baby' Seen as Omen by N. Koreans

A South Korean activist gives birth while visiting Pyongyang for an anniversary event. Some in the South suspect the timing was contrived.

November 20, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea — While watching child gymnasts tumbling in unison across the field of Kim Il Sung Stadium in a performance heralding the miracle of the North Korean economy, Hwang Seon felt a sharp cramp in her abdomen.

Within minutes, the 32-year-old South Korean tourist was whisked by ambulance across town to Pyongyang's maternity hospital. There, doctors delivered a 7-pound, 6-ounce girl who has become an instant celebrity and rare source of optimism in this often-forlorn North Korean capital.

The baby is the first born in the North as a South Korean citizen. Her birth Oct. 10 has been hailed as a mystical sign that the half-century-long division of the Korean peninsula is coming to an end.

"Our precious unification baby girl," is how North Korea's official KCNA news agency put it.

Hwang, who was more than eight months pregnant when she traveled to North Korea, spent two weeks recuperating in the maternity hospital, where she was treated without charge to around-the-clock nursing care. Her meals included seaweed soup, a Korean traditional postpartum treatment.

North Koreans suggested naming the baby Tongil, or "Reunification"; but that sounded like a boy's name, so the parents instead opted for Kyoreh, meaning "One People."

"Everybody said her birth was a lucky omen for the Korean people," said Hwang, a left-wing political activist who favors rapprochement with the North.

Hwang and her daughter are the best-known South Korean visitors to Pyongyang recently. But from late September until early this month, visitors from the South came in unprecedented numbers to view mass games marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party.

During October, 7,203 South Koreans flew to North Korea on nearly 100 nonstop flights connecting the estranged neighbors.

For the first time, planes bearing the insignia of South Korea's leading carriers, Korea Air and Asiana Air, became regular sights on the tarmac of Pyongyang's seldom-visited Sunam airport; North Korea's national carrier, Air Koryo, likewise was a frequent visitor to Incheon. Previously, there were only occasional charter flights between the airports for special events.

South Koreans in Pyongyang stood out in their colorful Gor-Tex jackets like exotic birds against the monochromatic North Korean landscape. Almost all carried digital cameras, a rarity in the North.

While North Koreans trudged through the empty boulevards on foot, the South Koreans were transported in fancy tour buses, some of which sported color television monitors and video recorders.

The South Koreans were not permitted to go out unescorted and had to wear large nametags around their necks. At one point, a disoriented man in his 80s, born north of the border, tried to wander out of a Pyongyang hotel in search of his home village, but was blocked by a courteous but insistent North Korean doorman, said a South Korean visitor who witnessed the encounter.

Overall, the South Koreans said, they got the impression that North Korea was on a charm offensive. For example, when some tourists complained about a scene in the mass games that showed North Korean helicopter commandos battling what seemed to be South Korean soldiers, the material was promptly cut out.

The mass games were blatantly designed to tug at the heartstrings of South Koreans. Named "Arirang" after a popular Korean folk song, the program was replete with sentimental tunes and operatic skits about separated families reaching for one another across barbed wire. The show used more than 100,000 performers, many of them holding colored cards to make up intricate mosaics.

Keeping on message, the finale used a backdrop of doves with a message: "The last wish of the father [referring to the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung] is reunification of the fatherland."

When North Koreans speak of reunification, their meaning is radically different from what Americans might think in recalling the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the absorption of the communist East by West Germany. Instead, the North Koreans describe a loose confederation under which their nation would keep its own system of government while receiving massive economic aid from the South.

"We don't want what happened in Germany," tour guide Pak Gyong Nam said as he showed visitors a 185-foot-high stone arch portraying two women in traditional Korean dress (one representing each Korea) touching hands across a broad thoroughfare known as Reunification Street. "We would be one country, but two governments.

"If Korea is reunified, South Korea will bring in technology and investment. We have great confidence in the future. If we are reunited, no problem."

The sentiment explains in large part why North Koreans were so enthusiastic about the so-called unification baby.

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