The world's attention is focused on North Korea, which is initiating a series of rapid economic reforms. As for South Korean society, inter-Korean economic cooperation such as the construction of an industrial complex in Gaeseong (North Korea) has emerged as a big issue in the corporate sector. The two Koreas have recently agreed that during the Busan Asian Games poised to start on September 29, athletes of the two Koreas will march together during the opening and closing ceremonies waving the Korean Peninsula flag and supporters will be allowed to use the DPRK national flag when cheering for North Korea. It is definitely the green light for inter-Korean relations these days.
In the midst of predictions of rapidly expanding cultural, economic and social exchanges between the North and South, efforts to "understand North Korea and its people properly" are spreading in South Korean society.
Recently, several peace advocacy groups have been making efforts to put aside political interests and view North Korea objectively. 'Okedongmu Children in Korea,' (translator's note: Okedongmu means the friendly gesture of putting arms around each other's shoulders) launched a peace education tour of elementary schools from 1999 onwards. Instead of the existing peace education that leaned towards anti-communism, or more specifically, anti-North Korean, Okedongmu members are teaching schoolchildren the geographical characteristics and cultural heritage of North Korea and the daily life of its people.
Okedongmu visits North Korea every year bearing pictures drawn by children in South Korea, and bring back pictures drawn by North Korean children to hold exhibitions. This year's exhibition, to be held this month in Japan, will be targeting the Korean and Japanese children living in Japan. Choi Hye Gyeong, a staff member of Okedongmu, explains that the purpose of such activities is to "understand differences."
'Good Friends,' a support group for North Korean refugees, compiled the interviews of North Koreans it had met while helping North Korean refugees in China to produce a first-hand account of the various aspects of life in North Korea, including politics, economics, society, education, health and culture. The book is entitled "The North Korean Story Told by North Korean People."
'Good Friends' takes North Korean defectors in Hana Institute (an office managed by the Ministry of Unification to support North Korean defectors' settlement in South Korean society) on cultural excursions to Gyeongju to help them understand South Korean culture. At the same time, the organization also invites the defectors to speak on North Korean society at its lectures on reunification. 'Good Friends' believes that "a proper understanding of the people, system and culture of North Korea must precede efforts to achieve reunification," and warns that "love without understanding becomes violence."
One example of efforts to put this belief into practice is set by WAW (Women Against War), an alliance of women opposing war. WAW has recently organized a lecture series entitled 'Looking at North Korea through the Eyes of Minorities,' through which it communicates with North Koreans living in South Korea. During the lectures, North Koreans who have lived different lives in different parts of North Korea look back on their past and share their experiences.
Says WAW, "Let's put aside all the stereotypes and prejudices we've had about North Korea and think about how the people in the North really live. When we finally understand North Koreans for who they are, we will be able to discover the solution to the yet unresolved problem of human rights in North Korea."