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An Illusion Of Unity

North and South Korea have agreed to march under a unified flag and combine their women's hockey teams at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. But political divisions and fears still govern the region.

Editor's note: Because some subjects have family remaining in North Korea, selected names have been changed and some identifying details withheld.

It was small, as prisons go. Just seven rooms, seven bare rooms full of men who committed low-level crimes as defined by the North Korean government. Shoplifting, say. Or being heard singing a South Korean song.

Kim Jin-sung was in for low-rent smuggling, and that should have been the end of it, really. Most North Koreans go to prison to die -- from the beatings or from the hard labor or from the lack of medicine or from starvation -- and, in the beginning, Kim Jin-sung was actually one of a few inmates responsible for helping with burials. By his estimate, between one and three inmates died every day he was in prison, and it was no problem that the prison had only four coffins; the prisoners were all so gaunt and emaciated by the time they died, you see, that fitting three bodies per casket was easy.

So, once a week, Kim Jin-sung loaded the four coffins holding a dozen or so bodies onto a tractor. Then he drove the tractor to a nearby hill where the soil was dry and thin. He emptied the caskets and buried the corpses there, digging new holes even as human skulls and splintered bones and weathered skeletons of other dead prisoners came up at him through the grainy sand.

Kim Jin-sung had spent 13 years in the North Korean military, working for the special unit that guarded the former supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. He lived in the leader's mansion, and led a group of entertainers who performed for Kim Jong Il. They had a charming routine involving show ponies.

Once he finished his required service, Kim Jin-sung returned to Hyesan, his home city in the north of the country, and married his sweetheart. His wife gave birth to a boy. Kim Jin-sung worked as a day laborer and took training classes to become a teacher. Life was good enough.

Only then his wife began coughing. And the coughing wouldn't stop. And there was blood in her throat. She had tuberculosis. There was no help from the state-run hospitals, no medicine that Kim Jin-sung could afford. Desperate for money, he began bootlegging, hawking whatever he could find into the pervasive North Korean black market: plants, shoes, copper, any contraband he could move from across the border in China and unload on the North Korean side.

It was all he could do for his wife, he believed. He had no choice. But desperation is a poor quality in a criminal, and he was caught and arrested and put in a kyo-hwa-so, or "re-education camp" -- the one with the seven rooms and the four coffins.

Every week, Kim Jin-sung drove the tractor to that burial hill. And every week, Kim Jin-sung dug the shallow graves and wondered when the next one would be his.


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Can Olympics ease tensions between the Koreas

Skepticism remains over whether substantive relations can be formed between North and South Korea despite the countries coming together for the Olympics.Jun Michael Park for ESPN

The Winter Olympics begin in two weeks in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and it is almost impossible to completely miss seeing a snippet or a nugget (or a tweet from the president of the United States) about what is supposedly happening on this peninsula in the Pacific Ocean. Taken together, those snippets and nuggets (and tweets from the president of the United States) amount to something like this:

North Korea is a small, dank, isolated authoritarian state led by a chubby, ruthless, possibly deranged man who ordered the executions of his uncle and half-brother; who hates America more than he hates the South; who is obsessed with nuclear missiles as well as the might of his army; and who rules over a people that either blindly reveres him despite living in the most abject poverty or, alternately, wishes desperately to flee to South Korea -- a country that is open, warm, technologically advanced, economically stable and filled with citizens who welcome the refugees from the North as brothers and sisters who have finally come home.

Where do the Olympics fit into this narrative? Hammered home by years of breathy speeches and saccharine television ads, the Olympics are -- naturally -- an important salve, a political lubricant that is larger than any conflict or history. "The Olympic Games show us what the world could look like, if we were all guided by the Olympic spirit of respect and understanding," IOC President Thomas Bach intoned recently.

Just look: After much consternation and public posturing, the North Koreans -- who have been petulant and persistent in firing test rockets over the past 12 months -- announced this month that they will send a delegation to Pyeongchang. This was portrayed as significant news, if only because it is expected that North Korea's participation will make a safe, and incident-free Games more likely.

Perhaps in an attempt to urge the North's participation, South Korea delayed its joint military exercises with the United States until after the Olympics, and there is real, actual political dialogue happening between the North and South now instead of empty rhetoric. The two Koreas will even have a joint women's hockey team at the Games, and will walk together in the opening ceremony.

"The Olympics is more than just a global sporting event," Kim Jae-youl, the executive vice president of the local organizing committee, told me in an office at the committee's headquarters in Seoul last year, delivering the line with a lilt, as if it were from scripture. "The Olympics is the occasion where people put aside differences and come together to celebrate the greatest festival on earth."


Hwangbo Young opened the door to her apartment in southwest Seoul and gave a sympathetic shiver of her shoulders. It was an uncommonly bitter November day, and Hwangbo offered up warm tea. The walls of her apartment were covered with flowered wallpaper, and the space was small but immaculate. Hwangbo sat on a plain leather couch and slipped baby booties on the paws of her Maltese, a little dog named Pink, so the puppy's toenails would not click-clack on the laminate floor.

Hwangbo grew up in Chongjin, which is tucked into the northeast corner of North Korea, hard by the East Sea. She had three siblings. Her parents were, relatively speaking, well-to-do, and when it became clear that she was talented at hockey even as a 12-year-old, she became obsessed by the sport. Her mother would have preferred she play the violin.

Resources in Chongjin were sparse -- the rink was a flooded playground grass area -- yet Hwangbo soon became part of the North Korean national team program. She was excited.

But in 1997, when Hwangbo was 19, her father told her that the family was going to defect. A loyal party member in North Korea for much of his life, Hwangbo's father had learned snippets and snatches about life on the outside from television and news radio broadcasts that were designed to show South Korea as weak. He saw them differently. "I want us to go because I want to make sure we live," Hwangbo's father told her, and her face fell.

Hwangbo ran away, sprinting to an aunt's house nearby because she did not want to leave. Her aunt sent her back. The family of six -- traveling in two groups of three -- made it to China in November 1997. About a year-and-a-half later, they arrived as refugees in South Korea.

It did not take long for Hwangbo to find her way back to hockey, and in 2003, as part of the South Korean national team, Hwangbo played against her former North Korean teammates during the Asian Games. The North Korean players -- her friends, some of whom she had roomed with as a member of North Korea's national team program -- called her "traitor" and checked her so mercilessly she became woozy. During the handshake line after the game, each of the North Korean players let her hand fall as Hwangbo approached.

"I cried buckets," she said, and when I asked what she wished she could have said to her friends, she did not hesitate. "I wanted to say, 'You are being cheated,' " she replied. "I really wanted to shout out, 'You are all being cheated and I did not betray the country.' ... But I just walked out."

Hwangbo went on from that game against North Korea to become the face of women's hockey in South Korea, captaining the team and advocating publicly for better treatment of female athletes. She is now retired from the sport but coaches children with disabilities and works as a referee. She has immersed herself fully into South Korean society and is planning a trip to Hawaii with her mother to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their arrival in Seoul.

"I have no problem living in South Korea," she said. "I pay to purchase my own car, and I put gas in it and drive around. I go everywhere I want to go. It is not inconvenient to live, and my life is not strange. No one stares at me."

"Because of these things," she said, "I consider myself a South Korean person."

Indeed. In North Korea, Hwangbo waited in line for her chance to take a cold shower. In North Korea, white rice was the equivalent of gold. In North Korea, she sewed together ripped pairs of underwear to make them last longer.

In South Korea, her dog wears socks.


Two children play with a snowman in the town of Hoenggye, site of the Olympic Stadium and Ski Jumping Stadium for the Pyeongchang Games. Jun Michael Park for ESPN

Kim Jin-sung did not die in prison. After two years of incarceration, it was determined he was sufficiently educated about how wrong it was for him to try to make money to buy his wife's medicine, and he was released in 2007.

He returned to his wife and child in Hyesan, a border area nestled about 60 miles from Paektu Mountain, which is a volcano that is half in North Korea and half in China. In Chinese, the mountain is called Changbaishan, which means, "Ever-white Mountain." Its snow looks like clotted cream.

The winter temperatures in Hyesan are frigid -- as low as minus-9 degrees Fahrenheit with regularity -- and Kim Jin-sung felt the cold once he returned from prison. There was never enough food. There was never enough money.

Roughly a year after Kim Jin-sung got out of jail, his wife died. Their son, Kim Chul-sung, was about 3. Kim Jin-sung was stunned. He did not know what to do, did not know how to make a life for himself and his son without his wife there.

The child's grandparents -- on his mother's side -- made a home for the boy while Kim Jin-sung reeled. As Kim Chul-sung grew up, he began to resent Kim Jin-sung and stopped calling him "father" or "daddy." Once, during a visit, the boy threw a rock at Kim Jin-sung and shouted, "My mother is dead because of you!" Kim Jin-sung felt ashamed and turned away. He could not face his own boy.

While in prison, Kim Jin-sung had heard quiet chatter about South Korea. After his wife died, he tried to learn more.

He thought of trying to escape, of stuffing whatever he could into a pack and crossing the Yalu River into China under the cover of night. He thought of running, come what may. He thought of starting over.


In and around Seoul, where roughly half of the country's 50 million people live, North Korea's nuclear missile tests are like midnight police sirens in New York City: To those in hotel rooms, they are piercing alarms, jolting visitors upright in their beds. To those in apartments, who go to bed beneath a cacophony every night, they are little more than white noise.

For example, one day while I was in Seoul last year, the city woke to news that North Korea had launched a test missile during the night that had flown higher and longer than previous flights. This indicated, analysts said, that North Korea could reach the United States with a rocket.

The test was seen as a significant development, a brazen affront to the global community. James Mattis, the United States defense secretary, said the test was "a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly, the United States." My mother, who usually texts only once per day, texted me four or five times that morning alone, asking me to confirm repeatedly that I was OK and inquiring about the extent of the panic in the city.

Except, there was no panic. Several of the people I interviewed that day were not even aware a test had occurred. During lunch in a popular and congested restaurant, television screens showed news reports about the launch but there was no crowd gathered around the screen. No one's head swiveled to stare. There was no clamor.

At first, that seemed strange. After all, Seoul is some 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, where there is enough North Korean artillery to devastate the southern capital within hours. But the truth is that Seoul has lived with that threat for decades, and anyone who sits beneath the sword of Damocles long enough will, eventually, just stop noticing.

There is, however, a fascination with the daily lives of North Koreans. Recent estimates put the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea at just over 30,000, most of whom are scattered in a few neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital. In 2005, there was actually a concerted effort in South Korea to begin referring to North Korean refugees as saeteomin, which translates to "residents in a new place." The push was designed to encourage the idea that North Korean refugees should feel as Hwangbo does -- to feel that this is their home.

Despite that, the refugee-as-novelty element persists in the South. There are several "reality" TV programs starring refugees. One, which features many young female defectors, is called "Now On My Way to Meet You" and is a sort of Q&A/variety show that even has a global edition. It has been a strong ratings performer since 2011.

Those shows feed the craving that many South Koreans have for information about regular life in the North. This hankering knows no bounds, either. In mid-November, for instance, Oh Chong Song, a North Korean soldier, defected in a rare way: by crossing the Demilitarized Zone. To do so, Oh drove a military vehicle to the border and then ran across the line amid a hail of bullets from other North Korean soldiers. Oh was hit five times but survived. He was found under a pile of leaves on the South Korean side.

It was dramatic and harrowing, but the most talked-about detail of the episode was that doctors performing surgery on Oh found his body riddled with parasitic worms, some as long as 11 inches. This was seen by many as the latest proof that human feces is still used as an inexpensive crop fertilizer in North Korea -- an assertion the reality shows often highlight.

Part of the allure to this sort of information, naturally, is that it is a spider-crack through which to peer at a place shrouded in mystery. Only a fraction of South Koreans -- or, really, the entire world's population -- has spent any time in North Korea, which is so closed off it is known as the Hermit Kingdom. Even visitors see only slivers of life there, which further fuels the intrigue.

Last spring, the South Korean women's soccer team went to Pyongyang for a 2018 Asian Cup qualifying match against North Korea. Pyongyang is something of a cipher -- a showpiece city North Korea micromanages so tightly that people with disabilities are typically forced to move away lest they be seen by outsiders as weak.

That does not mean, however, that Pyongyang is in any way modern. Moon Mi-ra, a player on the South Korean team, said the bus ride from the team's hotel to the stadium felt like time travel: There were few cars and no advertisements anywhere, no billboards for anything other than praise of the great leader. Bicycles looked ancient. In stores, antiquated phrases were used on labels instead of the modern Anglicized versions common in the South (apple juice was labeled in old-fashioned Korean as "sweet water," Moon remembered).

"A long time ago, I watched TV with my mom and dad, and I was able to see brief scenes of the '80s and '90s," Moon said. "It was similar to those."

At the hotel, a handful of North Korean minders stood nearby as the South Korean players did stretching and calisthenics in the parking lot, making sure no one ventured beyond the agreed-upon area for warm-ups. The night before the game, Moon turned on the TV but quickly shut it off after realizing the only programs were about Kim Jong Un.

During the match, the stadium fell eerily silent -- no booing at all -- when South Korea scored in a 1-1 tie, but there was also no overt animosity from the spectators, no North Korean fans standing on the side of the road to yell at the South Korean team bus as it left the stadium. Moon and her teammates returned to Seoul the way they arrived: by first flying to China, then to South Korea, a sequence that transformed what could have been a 120-mile drive (if border crossings were actually allowed) into an overnight journey.

Once back home, Moon was barraged with questions from family and friends about her experience in North Korea. She had seen the other side with her own eyes, but the questions she got were not about politics or propaganda. All anyone wanted to know about was the mundane. "They first asked if the meals were delicious," Moon said, and so she told them that all the players ate a lot of seasoned chicken. She sounded genuinely impressed when she described the food, raving as well about a cake the players ate to celebrate one of her teammate's birthdays.

But when I asked her whether she thought a team of South Koreans playing in North Korea's capital could help improve relations between the countries -- or whether the Olympics could build on that soccer game and be some sort of stepping-stone to a larger resolution -- she paused. I asked again, thinking maybe she hadn't heard me. Moon stared back, her brow furrowed.

"I am not sure about that," she said finally.


Oh Sung-cheol, who fled North Korea for the sake of his art, at work in his studio. Jun Michael Park for ESPN

As a boy, Oh Sung-cheol would sketch the Monkey King, a centuries-old mythological figure whose Chinese name is Sun Wukong, on anything -- notebooks, scratch paper, folders or whatever else he could find while sitting in the back of his elementary school class. Like so many Asian children, Oh Sung-cheol was fascinated by Sun Wukong's slew of magical powers, including the ability to travel 13,000 miles in a single somersault. Oh Sung-cheol's love for the Monkey King is what ultimately led to him becoming a North Korean propaganda artist.

It did not happen immediately, of course. Oh Sung-cheol grew up in Nampo, which is not far from Pyongyang at the mouth of the Taedong River. In 1995, he joined the military at age 17, and, one day, an officer who had seen Oh Sung-cheol sketching ordered him to draw a picture that was hanging on the wall. Oh Sung-cheol obediently picked up his pencil and drew everything, including the frame the picture was in. The officer was impressed. He asked why Oh Sung-cheol had drawn some parts of the picture smaller than they appeared, and Oh Sung-cheol explained that it was because of artistic perspective -- that he was standing farther away and so he drew the picture as he saw it in his own eye.

The officer nodded.

"Why don't you draw pictures from today on?" he told Oh Sung-cheol. And so Oh Sung-cheol did, using his pens and paints in whatever way he was directed by his commanding officers.

Oh Sung-cheol was one piece in a staggering machine. Propaganda has always been a critical part of the North Korean regime's efforts to brainwash the population about its country's place in the world, and everything is fair game: art, music, film, poetry, literature. All of it is used to further the notion that North Korea is omnipotent.

When I showed Oh Sung-cheol some North Korean paintings I had found on the internet portraying the (largely mediocre) North Korean men's soccer team as world-beating heroes, he laughed.

"In all of the drawings of North Korea," he said, "there is not one that does not have the purpose of politics."

In North Korea, Oh Sung-cheol's quiet dream -- the one he never told anyone about -- was to make even one piece of art that people would accept on its worth, its own intrinsic beauty. One piece of art that meant only what he intended, not what he was told to make it mean. So, at around the age of 30, he defected, disappearing into a crowd in China and spending several years -- yes, years -- in the basement of South Korea's consulate in Beijing before the political machinations required to take a group of North Korean refugees from China (which is a North Korean ally) into Seoul could be worked out.

Some of the others with him in the basement could not stand the waiting, Oh Sung-cheol remembered. There was anxiety and despair. There were suicides. He recalled one young man who was withered by the darkness and uncertainty of the basement, and the shuffling and pitter-patter of the feet above that never seemed to be moving in their direction. The young man cut himself with a razor blade, Oh Sung-cheol said.

But Oh Sung-cheol thought of freedom in the basement, and when he finally arrived in Seoul, he expected to find splendor. He expected to be welcomed in his new home.

The reality was different.

A North Korean border town, thought to be a Potemkin village used for propaganda, as seen from the South. Jun Michael Park for ESPN

Oh Sung-cheol now lives in a ramshackle apartment in Eunpyeong, a neighborhood in the northwest corner of Seoul. His tiny space is shunted into a building that itself feels wedged into a steep hill. When I visited, I could sit at the low eating table and touch the tiny refrigerator and the door to the bathroom at the same time. There was no closet; Oh Sung-cheol's clothes were hidden behind a curtain. Canvases were tucked into corners, paint and palettes stacked by a single window.

Oh Sung-cheol has been in South Korea for six years. But it isn't his meager surroundings that bother him. It is everything else. The segregation he feels from natives, the difficulty with getting jobs or making friends or even just having a conversation on the subway or the bus. The uncomfortable silences.

"They do not treat me as a human being," Oh Sung-cheol said, shrugging.

He said it flatly, as if reciting the day's temperature. He said it evenly, because there was no disputing it. As he went on, detailing the dismissals and the slights, the brush-offs and the snubs, it became clear that the premise behind calling refugees saeteomin was flawed at its core. Many North Koreans do not feel at home at all.

Numerous studies have shown that as many as half of North Korean defectors experience depression after arriving in South Korea, and a 2015 survey by Korea Hana Foundation found that about 20 percent of refugees had had suicidal thoughts in the preceding 12 months -- nearly three times the percentage of South Korea's general population. Even more striking is that some aid organizations estimate that as many as 25 percent of North Korean refugees in the South consider going back.

Going back?

Oh Sung-cheol leaned forward in his chair. "They treat me as an inferior," he said softly.

“They do not treat me as a human being.”

- Oh Sung-cheol on his life in South Korea

It is the darker part of the story. It is what makes the idea of the Koreas walking together at the opening ceremony, holding hands and looking like a family, feel hollower than Kim Jae-yeol, the local organizing committee executive, would like. The feeling is so widespread that even some North Korean refugees who manage to assimilate in the South are colored by it.

Consider this: Hwangbo, who was born in North Korea and played hockey for both countries, said she did not think the North/South joint women's hockey team is meaningful because making room for North Korean players on the roster would deny South Korean players the Olympic moment they deserve. "I don't think it's the appropriate thing," she told me, adding that it "won't be for peace or harmony."

Hwangbo's sentiment is hardly unique. In 1994, surveys found that about 92 percent of South Koreans wanted to see unification with the North; by 2007, that had dropped by nearly 30 percentage points, and a government survey in 2011 showed that only 9 percent of 19- to 29-year-old South Koreans are "very interested" in a unified Korea.

The reasoning is not difficult to understand. South Korea has become the 11th-largest economy in the world in spite of a population that is smaller than nations such as Myanmar and Tanzania. There is innovation, technology and intense competition among citizens for schools and jobs and social advancement. There is pressure and expectation. There is trade.

Nothing close to this exists in North Korea. One study, by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, even indicated that South Koreans in their 20s do not see North Korea's political system as the only significant difference between them and the North Koreans: Personal values are seen as a divide, too.

To many young South Koreans, those from the North are just too different now, too different to be brothers and sisters. And Oh Sung-cheol, who fell in love with art by sketching a mythical and powerful monkey, said he was never able to forget it.

He looked at the canvases in his apartment, many of which are paintings of basic items such as spoons and straws. "Sad subjects," he said.


Members of FC Mirae, a team largely composed of North Korean émigrés, warm up for their weekly game in Gwangmyeong, just to the west of Seoul. Jun Michael Park for ESPN

Most mornings, Kim Jin-sung wakes up at 6 a.m. in his 380-square-foot, one-room apartment in northern Seoul. He goes outside and does a set of vigorous calisthenics. Then he has breakfast. On work days, he goes from job to job, working to install or repair sinks. Occasionally, like other defectors, he is asked to speak to South Korean soldiers about what he knows of the North Korean military. At night, he reads. Lately, he has been reading a book about South Korean history.

On Sundays, Kim Jin-sung puts on a soccer uniform. He is part of a club called Mirae, which means Future. It is a club made up primarily of North Korean refugees and meets -- rain, shine, snow or sleet -- on Sunday afternoons in Gwangmyeong, which is a city just on the edge of Seoul.

One weekend this past December, I met Kim Jin-sung at the artificial turf field. He and the other players bantered as they put on their shin guards and cleats while a group of wives sat nearby and snacked on nurungji, or rice cakes. One of the coaches drew formations on a pad atop a stack of kimchi boxes, which were distributed after the game. As the appointed kickoff time neared, the coach snapped at the players to get ready, shouting, "Put on your uniforms! And stop smoking cigarettes!" Kim Jin-sung stubbed out his butt sheepishly.

The game began. The players were mostly in their 20s or 30s, with a few in their 40s. The frosty wind was biting, and the mood was casual. One side played with 12 players for a while (possibly unintentionally), and, every 20 minutes or so, there was a break. Players took turns serving as referee, splashing water onto a single yellow whistle before passing it on.

During one break, Kim Jin-sung told me about leaving the North. In March 2016, he crossed the river into China, waiting for hours in snow and ice before passing through barbed-wire fences that North Korean guards had installed at the border. He spent months on trucks and boats, going through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand before being declared a refugee and arriving in South Korea last May.

His son is still in North Korea. Kim Chul-sung is now 12, according to his father, and the boy continues to live with his grandparents.

"What did your son say when you told him you were leaving?" I asked. Kim Jin-sung looked away. He never found the words to tell his child he was abandoning him.

"My son would have been shocked if I told him that I would go to South Korea," he whispered. "If someone says that he went to South Korea, they treat him as a traitor."

Kim Jin-sung and his son have not spoken in nearly two years. But a few days before Kim Jin-sung and I met, a border broker -- someone who works as a trafficker between North Korea, China and South Korea -- stopped Kim Jin-sung and gave him an envelope. It was from North Korea. Kim Chul-sung had sent some pictures to his father. Sitting alone in his apartment, Kim Jin-sung said, he wept as he stared at the photos of his boy.

Kim Jin-sung is convinced he will see his son again someday. When the Koreas are unified, he told me, he and Kim Chul-sung will play soccer together. They will try to be a family again. Mirae, it said on his chest. The future.

Kim Jin-sung bowed. Then he turned and jogged back onto the field. Short and thin, with skin that looked stretched tight over his bones, he was one of the few players not wearing anything under his short-sleeve blue jersey. He ran as if the gusts were pushing him.

When the ball came near, he started toward it with quick, sharp steps. The play would shift, and he would make another short sprint in a different direction. Occasionally, he leapt in the air and kicked out, only to land and resume bouncing around, bobbing in a way that was somewhere between restless and endearingly spastic.

The game lasted for hours. I never once saw him stand still.

Additional reporting was contributed by Max Kim.

Sam BordenBorden is a senior writer for ESPN. He previously worked for The New York Times as a foreign correspondent based in Paris.

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