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Koreans Meet in Gwangju Festival
Event demonstrates distance still remains between North and South
Hyejin Kim (mine1004)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-19 16:48 (KST)   
Balancing a balloon between their heads, a North Korean and a South Korean playing a game stumbled across a gymnasium floor. Rarely do North and South Koreans have such close contact, even when cooperating on projects. But last week in Gwangju, South Jeolla Province, there was an opportunity for them to interact in ways they have not before.

On June 15, Gwangju hosted the National Unification Festival, an event designed to promote exchanges between the North and South.

South Korean and North Korean representatives observing a series of games
©2006 Hyejin Kim
Even though North Koreans were not supposed to interact informally with South Koreans, North and South Koreans could be seen mingling at Yeomju Gymnasium. In a particular event, a series of games for South and North Korean guests were being played with all of the North Korean delegations in the audience.

On the gym floor, participants were divided into two teams, "Hana" (one) and "Uri" (we). Each team was made up of both North and South Koreans, as well as overseas Koreans. The emcee kept shouting that someday the two Koreas will work together just like the teams were demonstrating.

North Korean reporters were spread out among their South Korean counterparts.

As I watched the games, I subtly approached one of the North Korean reporters, who could be identified by their armbands and Kim Il-sung badges. He seemed surprised at my initiative to talk with him, but we were soon bantering about the games and the FIFA World Cup. While we spoke, men with black suits surrounded us. One stood in front of me and the other overheard our conversation behind us.

I suddenly realized that we were surrounded by several intimidating men. I smiled at them and said that we were just chatting about light subjects. The men told us that citizens of the two Koreas were not supposed to talk privately, according to the agreement of the two governments.

I wandered around the crowded gym floor. Wearing team uniforms, it was difficult to distinguish North and South Koreans. While representatives of the delegations spoke on stage, a small argument broke out in one corner of the gym.

The men in black suits appeared, and were trying to console a group of North Koreans. Apparently, a South Korean association had given gifts to the North Koreans, but the Korean governments had decided that presents should not be exchanged because of security concerns. When the men from the intelligence bureau discovered the presents, they asked the North Koreans to return them. The North Koreans were upset.

A North Korean and a South Korean together construct a map of unified Korea
©2006 Hyejin Kim
Watching the scene, one member of the festival committee admitted that something was missing from the festival. He and other committee members were excited about the possibility of building amicable relations through this festival, but not a few of those plans were curbed by the government.

Missing out on any chance to speak with some of the 150 invited North Koreans, citizens say they felt estranged from the festival. A taxi driver complained that the event was not for the people of Gwangju. Advertisements for the events did not explain how citizens could participate or observe.

When I entered a subway station, a private association was holding a small performance to celebrate the event. Two elderly men waited for the performance even though it would start two hours later. One told me he went to the festival at Chosun University the day before in order to see the North Korean guests, but the large number of people and the strict security made that difficult. He rushed back to his house to see the event on TV, but he could not find a channel showing it. I asked why he was desperate to see North Koreans. His answer was simple: He wanted to see their faces and give them a smile.

Citizens appeared excited by the festival. People from other places rented buses to come to Gwangu. Welcoming placards of all sizes covered the streets, but I also encountered cars with signs disparaging communists.

The distance between North Koreans and South Koreans in Gwangju, even when only a balloon separated their heads, was palpable. That distance will not be overcome soon. But I could feel that the old man's enthusiasm -- even though it stemmed from simple curiosity -- and the North Korean reporter's constant questions -- even though we could not talk about the serious issues of unification -- could be a good start on the road toward better relations between the Koreas.
©2006 OhmyNews
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