One handshake, and tears across the Koreas

South Koreans watched the first-ever meeting between the leaders of North and South with mixed feelings.

On an extraordinary day - when the leaders of North and South Korea clasped hands after a half century of hostility - a grandmother named Park Jung-soo struggles to imagine what has long been unthinkable: peace.

"I felt like crying," says Mrs. Park, who seemed a bit awed by the events of the day as she sat on a subway bench with her purse in her lap. "We have been thinking that they are our enemies," she says of her Northern brothers and sisters. Now she realizes they "are also Koreans."

Nowhere was this sudden amity more evident than in Pyongyang, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unexpectedly showed up at the airport to greet his Southern counterpart, President Kim Dae Jung.

Thus began a remarkably friendly day for two men whose armies face each other over the world's last cold-war divide. At their first summit meeting, Kim Jong Il inquired about media reports that his guest had had only half a soft-boiled egg for breakfast.

"I did so because I know I would have a good meal when I got to Pyongyang," President Kim replied, to the laughter of the aides assembled.

The day seemed short on substance and long on the rhetoric of reconciliation, especially from the South Korean president. But it may be that the two leaders and their delegations need to loosen up before settling down to the business of building peace.

Certainly, some of President Kim's fellow citizens, back home in Seoul, had a hard time adjusting to the new reality that the menace to the North now seems almost like family.

"I just wish that the North Koreans could accept that times have changed and that we will accept that too," says Kye Sung-il, a retired journalist who fled the North in 1947. "There was a hot war and a cold war. Now it's time for reconciliation and cooperation."

Back then, two years after the US and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th Parallel, it was a time of hardship and, for Mr. Kye, ideological oppression.

The eldest son of a farmer in the western part of North Korea, he went south in search of work, telling his mother he would be back in a month or two. In Pyongyang, communist relatives turned him out and he fled to Seoul.

Fifty-three years later, Kye has no idea what became of the parents, two brothers, and three sisters he left behind. He assumes they know nothing of him.

He has not attempted communication for fear that he would endanger his family. They may have told officials that he fled to China, Japan, or the US - anywhere but to enemy territory, South Korea.

Indeed, it has been so long since Kye was among his own kin that he doesn't bother to scan the crowds on television in search of siblings' faces. "I wouldn't recognize them if I tried."

"I miss my parents. All I want right now is to see their graves ... I want to go see them and put down some food," he says, referring to a custom of honoring departed loved ones with provisions.

Of the summit, he says: "The only expectation I have is that there be a way for relatives to meet."

In central Seoul, skinny young women dressed in matching black micro-sheaths dance on a sidewalk platform to promote a department-store sale. Most of the shoppers, says one of the dancers, were virtually oblivious to the day's events.

"It doesn't matter much to my generation," says Cho Hee-jung, a woman whose job title translates to "beautiful helper." But she admits she watched the momentous handshake anyway, crying a few tears of disbelief when she saw the two leaders shake hands. "It was so emotional. I felt touched. This is our national pain."

Many young South Koreans are more concerned about the harsh economic toll a potential reunification with the impoverished North could have on the booming South. "Of course we're worried about the costs. We can't just give away all of our resources to them," says Ms. Cho. "If there is a reunification, there'd be so much confusion in the country and I don't want to see that."

While older South Koreans can remember when the peninsula was one, those who grew up long after the division into North and South are less apt to feel an affinity for North Koreans, who share the same language, ethnicity, and usually the very same names.

Some here express a feeling of vague embarrassment about their dogma-dimmed cousins across the border, marveling at the way cheering crowds lined the streets to greet President Kim as if by decree - and at Pyongyang's stark, Stalinist architecture, a surreal contrast to Seoul's commercial buzz.

"When I see them on TV, I don't feel I have any relation to them," Cho says of the North Koreans. "I hate to say it, but I'm afraid of them."

Kim Choon-sun peers through the plate-glass front of her tiny underground eatery to watch a television set up for public viewing. Even at a distance, the scenes give her hope about North Korea and its leader. "He has been totally veiled," she says of Kim Jong Il. "We have no idea how he lives or what he thinks. But to see him shaking hands with Kim Dae Jung - he might be trying to change."

Ms. Kim is one of the million or so South Koreans who fled the North before and during the Korean War. A half-century ago she lost contact with grandparents, aunts, and uncles on her mother's side. "If they are still alive," she says, "they must be really, really poor."

She supposes, speculating about the challenges of reunification, that families would be able to surmount the changes in culture that have arisen between North and South. Of her own family, she adds, "I think they may have passed away."

A no-nonsense, middle-aged woman who spent years preparing noodles and Korean-style sushi in this lunch-counter restaurant before buying the place two years ago, she sounds impressed with President Kim. "I think he has achieved a really big thing."

In the subway station, dozens of men and a few women gaze at a TV showing the thousands of North Koreans lining the streets of their capital, many women wearing the traditional flowing dress known as hanbok. Men, in shirts and ties, seem to be taking a break from their office jobs. Children appear in school uniforms. Nearly everyone waves plastic azaleas, welcoming the South Koreans in a display of social order and spotless avenues.

Around the televisions, expressions range from stern to skeptical to bemused.

One older man places a newspaper on the floor and sits down cross-legged, staring up at the television screen with a kind of awe.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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