PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — The Koreas share a border, a culture and a language. But 70 years after they were separated, North and South are about as divided as divided gets.
With almost any kind of contact blocked or barred or banned by law, the gap between them has grown to the point where they almost seem like strangers in many ways. And while the Pyeongchang Olympics have brought North Korean athletes, musicians, martial artists, singers and cheering squads flooding into the South, tight security means it’s still almost impossible for either side to interact.
So, embedded in a crowd of excited South Korean Olympic fans waiting to get into a united Korea women’s ice hockey match, The Associated Press posed a question:
If you had the chance, what would you ask a North Korean?
(Quick note: Our reporter Kim Tong-hyung had a question, too. It’s at the bottom.)
MARRIAGE, FREEDOM … BUT IS IT EVEN OK TO ASK?
Lee So-mi, a 28-year-old jobseeker, said she was curious about life in North Korea. But when asked what she would say if the chance ever actually arose, she giggled and struggled to come up with ideas. She wondered about what life would be like in a society where she imagines there is little personal freedom.
But she couldn’t imagine asking a North Korean directly about it.
“If you are a (North Korean) woman in your late 20s … Oh, how do I say this? Marriage life? Jobs? I want to ask about those things, like whether life is good for them.”
But, she added quickly, “You really can’t ask them so straightforwardly.”
When asked how she might delicately phrase such the question, she burst into laughter and said, “I don’t know! It’s too hard!
OUR UNIFICATION OR YOURS?
Office worker Kim Jae-in, 54, said he doesn’t think North Korea’s bad because — nukes and all — it’s doing what it’s doing “just to survive.”
“North Koreans are part of the same nation with us. They are pursuing their own ways just to survive. I don’t have bad things to say about that.”
“I want to ask whether they really want unification. Of course, our brethren in North Korea would want unification, but what kind of unification would that be? We in the South want a democratic peaceful unification, while they might want a socialist unification. There could be differences.”
A KID’S TAKE…
Park Jin-woo, a 14-year-old middle school student, came to the game with his father, a newspaper reporter. He went right to what he’s been taught about the North and said his opinions have been changing, and not just because of the Olympics.
“I first thought they were bad. But after learning in school, I now have good thoughts about them. They are not people with cold hearts — the North Koreans are part of our nation.”
“I want to ask whether they want unification with South Korea. It would be great for all of us if we can unify with our friends in North Korea. I would like to think that our friends in North Korea would think that unification will happen, and want it to happen.”
THE FOOD CHANNEL?
Hong Seong-hun, a 59-year-old pipe organ designer, said he didn’t know there would be a joint North-South team when he reserved the ice hockey tickets. He said the flurry of diplomacy and conciliatory measures between the Koreas over the North’s participation in the Olympics made him “giddy like I am a child again.”
“We don’t know much about North Korea. But considering their characteristics, they would be a truly rigid society. There’s no other country like that in the world. Any narrow-mindedness they might have, I hope that we could help change that.”
“Well, even the language is different now, and we would need to unify that first. We would need a lot of talk to overcome cultural differences. Maybe we can start with food — that would help us understand their thoughts and emotions and change the views we had about each other. … We only have a superficial understanding of North Korean food. What can North Korea tell us about itself through its food?
“Maybe if we talk a lot of about food, we will begin to understand each other.”
IMPRESSIONS OF THE CAPITAL
Seoul-based AP writer Kim Tong-hyung, who’s a South Korean, too, did most of the question-asking for this story. And he has one of his own.
His question: “What would you do if you had a day in Seoul? I’m really interested in what they think of South Korean culture. I think their answer would reveal a lot about that.”
Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief, is on assignment in Pyeongchang. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @erictalmadge. Follow Kim Tong-hyung at @kimtonghyung.