While watching child gymnasts tumbling in unison across the field of Kim Il Sung Stadium in a performance heralding the miracle of the North Korean economy, Hwang Seon felt a sharp cramp in her abdomen.
Within minutes, the 32-year-old South Korean tourist was whisked by ambulance across town to Pyongyang’s maternity hospital. There, doctors delivered a 7-pound, 6-ounce girl who has become an instant celebrity and rare source of optimism in this often-forlorn North Korean capital.
The baby is the first born in the North as a South Korean citizen. Her birth Oct. 10 has been hailed as a mystical sign that the half-century-long division of the Korean peninsula is coming to an end.
“Our precious unification baby girl,” is how North Korea’s official KCNA news agency put it.
Hwang, who was more than eight months pregnant when she traveled to North Korea, spent two weeks recuperating in the maternity hospital, where she was treated without charge to around-the-clock nursing care. Her meals included seaweed soup, a Korean traditional postpartum treatment.
North Koreans suggested naming the baby Tongil, or “Reunification"; but that sounded like a boy’s name, so the parents instead opted for Kyoreh, meaning “One People.”
“Everybody said her birth was a lucky omen for the Korean people,” said Hwang, a left-wing political activist who favors rapprochement with the North.
Hwang and her daughter are the best-known South Korean visitors to Pyongyang recently. But from late September until early this month, visitors from the South came in unprecedented numbers to view mass games marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
During October, 7,203 South Koreans flew to North Korea on nearly 100 nonstop flights connecting the estranged neighbors.
For the first time, planes bearing the insignia of South Korea’s leading carriers, Korea Air and Asiana Air, became regular sights on the tarmac of Pyongyang’s seldom-visited Sunam airport; North Korea’s national carrier, Air Koryo, likewise was a frequent visitor to Incheon. Previously, there were only occasional charter flights between the airports for special events.
South Koreans in Pyongyang stood out in their colorful Gor-Tex jackets like exotic birds against the monochromatic North Korean landscape. Almost all carried digital cameras, a rarity in the North.
While North Koreans trudged through the empty boulevards on foot, the South Koreans were transported in fancy tour buses, some of which sported color television monitors and video recorders.
The South Koreans were not permitted to go out unescorted and had to wear large nametags around their necks. At one point, a disoriented man in his 80s, born north of the border, tried to wander out of a Pyongyang hotel in search of his home village, but was blocked by a courteous but insistent North Korean doorman, said a South Korean visitor who witnessed the encounter.
Overall, the South Koreans said, they got the impression that North Korea was on a charm offensive. For example, when some tourists complained about a scene in the mass games that showed North Korean helicopter commandos battling what seemed to be South Korean soldiers, the material was promptly cut out.
The mass games were blatantly designed to tug at the heartstrings of South Koreans. Named “Arirang” after a popular Korean folk song, the program was replete with sentimental tunes and operatic skits about separated families reaching for one another across barbed wire. The show used more than 100,000 performers, many of them holding colored cards to make up intricate mosaics.
Keeping on message, the finale used a backdrop of doves with a message: “The last wish of the father [referring to the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung] is reunification of the fatherland.”
When North Koreans speak of reunification, their meaning is radically different from what Americans might think in recalling the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the absorption of the communist East by West Germany. Instead, the North Koreans describe a loose confederation under which their nation would keep its own system of government while receiving massive economic aid from the South.
“We don’t want what happened in Germany,” tour guide Pak Gyong Nam said as he showed visitors a 185-foot-high stone arch portraying two women in traditional Korean dress (one representing each Korea) touching hands across a broad thoroughfare known as Reunification Street. “We would be one country, but two governments.
“If Korea is reunified, South Korea will bring in technology and investment. We have great confidence in the future. If we are reunited, no problem.”
The sentiment explains in large part why North Koreans were so enthusiastic about the so-called unification baby.
“Have you heard about the South Korean woman who gave birth?” asked Kim Kyoung Kil, a North Korean lieutenant colonel who was escorting tourists at the demilitarized zone the day after Hwang and her newborn crossed on their way back to Seoul. “It means reunification is near. Only the Americans are preventing it.”
The reunification baby’s birth -- which took place on the exact date of the 60th anniversary of the Workers’ Party founding -- fits so perfectly into North Korean propaganda that many suspect it was contrived.
Hwang has issued a denial, saying that her due date was 20 days away when she made the trip and that she had scheduled a caesarean section in Seoul for the following week because of complications from a previous birth.
“Even my friends think it was planned, but it’s not so,” said Hwang, who lavished praise on the medical care and nursing she received. “They were very impressive.... Everybody was wonderful to me.”
Other South Korean tourists, most of whom were visiting on a two-day tour that cost $1,000, expressed mixed sentiments about their experience.
Student activists and union members who marched onto the field with a pro-reunification flag were greeted by wild applause from North Koreans in the audience.
But some of the southerners were dismayed by what they saw as an unabashed celebration of totalitarianism.
“Rather than being impressed by the extravagant brightness and precision of the mass games, I was shocked at how mechanical those people were and realized how oppressed they are,” said Lee Yong Hoon, a 62-year-old businessman from Suwon. “I realize we can’t rush into reunification until North Koreans can accept concepts of freedom and individuality.”
More than 1 million South Koreans have visited North Korea since 1998, but most have gone only to Mt. Kumgang, in a border-area enclave open to tourists.
The visits last month were the first mass influx of tourists to the North Korean capital. They coincided with a period of rapidly accelerating economic and cultural exchanges between the Koreas.
South Korea’s national assembly is expected Dec. 1 to approve a humanitarian and economic aid package for the North worth $2.5 billion -- nearly double last year’s allocation. And the two announced this month that they might field a joint team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
South Korea’s largesse has come under some criticism because of the North’s nuclear program, the subject of six-nation talks. The Bush administration, along with the conservative establishment inside South Korea, has taken the position that rewards should be deferred until the Pyongyang regime dismantles its nuclear weapons.
“Our government is in collusion with North Korea, creating the false illusion that all is quiet on the northern front, when it is not,” said Lee Dong Bok, a former South Korean intelligence official and assemblyman. By allowing its citizens to visit Pyongyang for mass games, he said, “South Korea is helping North Korea promote its propaganda.”
Technically, South Koreans need waivers from their country’s National Security Law -- which prohibits support of North Korea -- to visit Pyongyang.
Hwang Seon, the baby’s mother and a former student radical, served 34 months in South Korean prisons largely because she made an unauthorized trip to North Korea in 1998.
“The last time I came back [to South Korea] from North Korea, the National Intelligence Service was waiting for me to arrest me,” Hwang recalled. “This time, I held my baby in my arms and was welcomed back with flowers.”
Hwang’s husband was not able to meet his wife and new daughter upon their arrival home. He is in hiding, wanted by South Korean authorities on charges of pro-North Korean activities.