When Kim Seungeun first visited North Korea, he saw a barren land devastated by famine, its trees stripped by people desperate to heat their homes. He can still picture the corpses floating down the Tumen River on its border with the South. “Sometimes there was just one body, sometimes two or three,” he told me. “They’d probably all starved to death.”
Kim watched in horror as people on both banks poked the corpses with poles until they burst and sank beneath its waters, rather than bother to retrieve them. Then came the pivotal event in his life. A stick-thin child — a boy of about seven, malnourished and driven by grinding hunger to cross the swirling river despite the bodies — begged him for help. “I fell to my knees, crying so many tears, and promised God to devote my life to helping these people,” said Kim.
The nightmare he witnessed on his volunteer church mission at the turn of the century could not be more different from the portrait painted by his grandfather. Growing up in a small South Korean fishing village, Kim was frequently regaled with tales of the beautiful mountains, rivers and women seen in the north before their country was sliced in half following the Second World War. Three decades later, this romantic image had been shattered.