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Ro Jintek and his wife Ri Sunja were both children of the Arduous March, the great North Korean famine of the 1990s. The horrors they had witnessed at the time revisited them again and again in their adulthood. There were nights when one of them would wake with a helpless cry, the mind recoiling from visions of ashen landscapes covered with piles of decaying corpses. In the fearful hours that followed, they silently held onto each other tightly until the warmth of their intimacy loosened the necromantic grip of their unwanted memories.
Jintek came from the insignificant town of Woldong, in the northernmost province of Hamgyeong, but he was able to attend Kim Ilsung University in Pyongyang as his late great-grandfather had been a hero of the 1950 war and his father was a third-generation party member with a solid position as an official in the provincial People’s Committee. At the end of his third year as a law student, he made the long trip back home to make arrangements to marry his childhood sweetheart Sunja following graduation. Soon after he returned to Pyongyang, however, all of his plans for the future became lost in the unexpected intrusion of history that changed the entire world around him. A series of dramatic movements in international politics unfolded with breathtaking [End Page 123] speed, resulting in the sudden end of all of hostilities between the two Koreas and an agreement for their reunification.
The uncertain and precarious situation in the peninsula that had lasted well over half a century could have easily ended in catastrophe for millions, so the achievement of a peaceful and orderly reunification came as a surprise to everyone, even to those who had been waiting all their lives for the event. The new nation’s government impressed the entire world with the efficiency and sound judgment with which it oversaw a smooth transition into the new era. A quickly negotiated treaty with the United States, China, and Russia affirmed that the country would be free of nuclear weapons and that no American troops would be stationed north of the 38th Parallel, with a schedule for complete withdrawal. The border area of what used to be the Demilitarized Zone (which would be turned into a nature preserve after the removal of landmines) was kept firmly closed for the time being by divisions of the military to stop the flooding of hundreds of thousands of destitute refugees to the South. With the help of the UN and other international organizations, extensive camp sites were built on the north side to shelter and feed the migrants.
The chaebol corporations of the South went up and quickly initiated massive construction projects, building roads, power plants, and factories, especially in the more economically stricken rural areas. The government opened occupational training facilities in virtually every city and town, and at the refugee camps, where people were taught skills that they could use in the new economy. A special effort was made to recruit younger people whose work habits had not yet been corrupted by the demoralized laziness engendered by the previous Stalinist system. People in the South, especially recent college graduates, were encouraged to go up to teach or just help out at the camps (with time-served credit for military service), while many Korean-Americans and other [End Page 124] foreign residents were recruited as English teachers. In less than two years, as a steady number of healthy and newly skilled people began to leave the camps to take up many available jobs in the great reconstruction of the North, the foreign press was already speaking of the second Korean miracle, the first having been the South’s economic rise in the 1970s and 80s.
For the average citizens of the North, however, this was a time of great anxiety as well as hope. They were relieved, first and foremost, that there would be no war, no invasion by the monstrous Americans on a genocidal campaign that the previous regime had warned them of all their lives. The poorest people gratefully received aid packets full of strange-tasting but filling food from...