Student defector spurs reunification dialogue:
Growing up in North Korea, Choi Jae-chan (an alias), now a student at Seoul’s prestigious Yonsei University, never aspired to a higher education, let alone to become a leader working for reunification of the two Koreas.
“We were living hand-to-mouth,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Under those conditions, attending university was not something you thought about.”
That has all changed for the young man who fled the North at the age of 16 due to poverty.
Choi, now 28, is president of Unification Hanmadang, a Yonsei-based club that seeks to create better conditions for reunification by fostering interaction between South Korean students and their peers who have defected from the North.
“It’s a place where South and North Koreans can figure out their differences,” he said. “That can’t happen when we’re isolated from each other.”
Defectors and activists say that greater interaction with the some 20,000 North Korean defectors in the South ― who often battle negative stereotypes ― is a key to preparing for eventual reunification as they can help the North adjust when the sides unite.
Club activities include lectures by guest speakers, discussion groups and team-building exercises, as well as outreach to the community.
The students’ activism not only goes against the grain of their peers, perceived as ambivalent to reunification, but also puts them at the forefront of efforts to broaden dialogue on an issue seen as increasingly urgent.
The issue took the spotlight once again when President Lee Myung-bak, in his March 1 address to the nation, pledged to build consensus on the need for reunification and ways to boost the nation’s capacity to handle it.
But Choi, whose journey has often been solitary and treacherous, tends not to think of reunification as a grand political event. He says it exists in small interactions between people. And it has already begun.
Education of a leader
It would be easy to mistake Choi, relaxed in manner as well as dress, for one of the thousands of South Korean students roving through Sinchon, a busting college area in western Seoul.
But his refusal to be photographed and use his real name for this article, for fear of retribution by North Korean authorities, underscores the burden he carries.
Much of that weight is Choi’s own sense of responsibility. As the eldest son, he left for China in 1999, alone, in a bid to eventually help his family back home.
In doing so he became one of the many North Koreans forced to live in hiding due to Beijing’s repatriation policy.
Choi managed to enroll at a boarding school in the country’s northeast, where he studied for five years. But faced with a choice between living in constant fear and making the dangerous journey to the South, he opted for freedom.
After three semesters of high school in Seoul, he was admitted to Yonsei through a program for students educated outside the country and began classes as a 23-year-old freshman.
After his Chinese schooling, Choi had forgotten much of the Korean language ― and that was just the beginning of his difficulties.
“My environment had changed so completely that I found it hard to understand what was happening around me. Because I was dealing with this inner tension, I must have seemed like a closed person,” he said.
Choi was even hesitant to visit the club, which at the time was a support group comprised only of defectors. “I thought it’d be kind of a navel-gazing club, just for North Korean defectors,” he said. He joined, though, after cajoling from friends.
Due to interest from South Korean students, the society later expanded to its present form and now boasts a membership of some 35 members from both sides of the border as well as non-Koreans.
Club members say that Choi, now in his second semester as president, has come a long way from being that introverted freshman.
“He’s a smooth leader,” said Kim Hyun-min, a South Korean student and secretary of the club. “He’s always smiling. He’s always listening to other people’s opinions.”
When it came time for Choi to select a major, he chose Korean Literature, perhaps a bid to reclaim the language he could have lost. “I’ve learned from my travels how important language really is,” he said.
The Lee administration’s call for greater attention to reunification underscores growing concern over the financial burden those from the South would have to bear.
Improving the North’s infrastructure and living conditions to anything close to what is enjoyed here is expected to cost the South some $1 trillion, the brunt of which would fall on younger generations.
In the case of the North suddenly collapsing, the bill is expected to more than double.
It is not an issue easily discussed by policymakers. Lee’s proposal of a “unification tax” was slammed by the North, which accused him of envisioning an end of the Kim Jong-il regime and opposition lawmakers panned the idea as too provocative.
This year, among other moves, the government has launched a series of public lectures and surveys in a bid to increase dialogue. It has also launched new programs to help defectors, which activists have called a step in the right direction.
Still, most of the nation’s youth remains ambivalent to reunification, as the generation that experienced the division of the peninsula slowly fades. Many say the attitude shift is due in large part to a widening cultural gap between the communist North and increasingly cosmopolitan South.
Kim, a communications major, used to share the sentiment. “I thought of North Koreans and defectors here as foreigners,” she said, adding that the club has changed her perception.
Choi said South Korean youths simply don’t have the time to think deeply about the issue.
“Preparing for TOEIC, graduating, getting a job; military service, getting married. To put these things on the back burner and think about unification as one of your top priorities? That’s not easy,” he said.
Both agreed that interest in reunification should be nurtured from a young age. And with 20,000 defectors already living in the South, there is plenty of opportunity for North and South Koreans to build bridges among them, they said.
Small steps, big vision
Kim said many in the club approach reunification largely from a political angle, focusing on the governments’ role, or on the brutality of the Kim Jong-il regime.
While Choi listens intently to his peers’ viewpoints, he chooses to employ what Kim called a “microscopic” approach.
“Reunification is already happening. That’s why North and South Koreans are able to live here together now,” he said.
Despite the pain of being separated from his parents and siblings, Choi cherishes the academic life and says his days have become rather ordinary.
“I study, hang out, enjoy a drink now and then. When things are not so smooth, I try to stay positive,” said the aspiring writer who plans to travel and experience more of the world before settling into a career.
In the end, Choi believes that the issue of reunification is much bigger than the two Koreas.
“It’s about suffering people, children having a hard time, unable to go to school. We need to take an interest in their lives, rather than simply framing the matter as reunification,” he said.