|Pastor Han Sang-ryeol is seen carrying rocks on the island-bound grounds of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang on Aug. 19, 2010, a day before he returned to South Korea at the Joint Security Area. / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
I met a surprising number of interesting people on my 2010 visit to North Korea, the most memorable of whom was probably South Korean pastor Han Sang-ryeol. Han, a Presbyterian pastor and reunification activist who had been staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the same as my group. One of my friends noticed an elderly Asian man dressed in simple clothes, and suspected it was Han, who had snuck into the North on June 12 that year
Then on Aug. 19, I saw the same man wandering the grounds of the island-bound hotel, moving rocks around as if he was tending to a garden.
I managed to intercept him in the parking lot with my friends, and we had a friendly chat with him and he shook our hands and posed for photos. He asked for our contact information to stay in touch, but considering the reception he was likely to receive on returning to the South, we decided it was best he wasn't arrested in South Korea carrying our names.
|Pastor Han Sang-ryeol smiles in the parking lot of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang on Aug. 19, 2010, a day before he returned to South Korea at the Joint Security Area. / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
He had been welcomed in the North, and made himself busy while there meeting people, seeing the sights and making statements that jibed with their party line. Shortly after his arrival, he issued a statement on June 20 accusing then-President Lee Myung-bak of being the true cause of the ROKS Cheonan sinking earlier that year, and praising the leadership of Kim Jong-il, the father and predecessor of the current leader Kim Jong-un. He also attended 10th anniversary celebrations of the June 15 Joint Declaration, signed by Kim and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000.
So this was quite the PR coup for the North, allowing it to depict the South as the anti-unification aggressor and for violating the spirit of the inter-Korean agreement. But the biggest spectacle was yet to come: he still had to go home.
We had done the DMZ tour already on Aug. 18, and I learned later there was some concern among our group that our trip down to Panmunjeom could have been canceled had he chosen to step South then. But he reportedly stepped South across the Demarcation Line (DML) on Aug. 20.
The following day, my friends and I were sampling craft beer and makgeolli at Rakwon Department Store's microbrewery, when who should appear on the bar TV but pastor Han?
Footage shows him giving his farewells on his southbound journey, dressed all in white and carrying a unification flag featuring the Korean Peninsula in blue on a white background. The North Koreans around him were reacting as if he were Cliff Richard.
At the Joint Security Area (JSA) where he was set to cross into South Korea, a huge crowd of North Koreans are there to cheer him on, waving flags and chanting. He goes right up to the DML, on the other side of which there are soldiers and men in black suits waiting for him. He stops to hold up the unification flag and give his final words to the North, and then he steps into Southern territory where the men in suits ― not the uniformed soldiers ― escort him away quickly as if their lives depended on it.
Seeing this through the North Korean lens, only a day after it happened, had quite an impact on me. Setting aside the merits of either side's ideological stances, it was clear this played well for the North. It also seemed apparent the North didn't see the JSA as the site of a military standoff, but a cultural and political one. To them it was a stage, and the South Korean side failed to recognize that on that day.
Han was charged for his unauthorized visit to North Korea and for violating the National Security Act and was imprisoned for three years.