Separate Lives

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Koreans dare to dream of going home
Koreans wept, rejoiced or simply shook their heads in disbelief as the leaders of North and South clasped hands on the tarmac of Pyongyang's Sunan Airport. The moment was particularly poignant for Choi Woo Young, a 29-year-old assistant manager at Seoul's National Health Insurance Corp. Choi last saw her father 13 years ago, when he left to go fishing. Two weeks later, a North Korean patrol boat seized his fishing craft along with 13 crewmen. In January, she learned her father was still alive, languishing in a North Korean prison camp. As the two Korean leaders stood beaming at each other, says Choi, I could feel my father reaching out to me from the gulag.

The same televised images brought tears streaming down the face of Shin In Young, a former North Korean spy now living in Seoul. The 70-year-old left his home´┐Żnear Sunan Airport´┐Żon March 9, 1967, leaving behind his pregnant wife and two children. He had orders to infiltrate South Korea for what he calls a unification mission. Captured, he spent 31 years in a tiny solitary cell, winning release in an amnesty two years ago. Shin remains loyal to North Korea; still, he was overwhelmed by last week's summit. The meeting between the two leaders means more to me than reuniting with my own family, he says.

As the two Koreas take the first baby steps toward reconciliation, Choi and Shin are living symbols of the ideological gulf that separates them. For Choi, North Korea is the mad-dog Stalinist state that stole her father from her. Shin views South Korea as a degenerate society where the rich trample on the poor. Bridging this gap may be one of the thorniest problems the two Koreas face as they try to find common ground between their societies.

Choi's father is one of 3,756 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, seized by the North since the Korean War ended in 1953. North Korea has never explained why it took the men, but it has tried to use some of them as bargaining chips or as a way to blackmail their families into spying. Over the years, Pyongyang has released most of the captives. But 454 men, including Choi's father, remain in the North. As for Shin, he says he would like to see the wife and children he left behind in the North. More importantly, he says:I want to return to the North to continue my reunification struggle.

In their historic joint declaration last week, President Kim Dae Jung and Chairman Kim Jong Il agreed to exchange visits by separated families and to resolve the issue of convicted communists who have served long prison sentences in the South. This could mean that Shin may return home soon. For Choi, reconciliation between North and South can't come fast enough. She was thrilled when she learned earlier this year that her father was still alive. But the joy turned to sorrow, she says, when I heard that rats are the tastiest meal in a concentration camp.