MURRAY - Hyoweon Kim, a South Korean student at Murray State University, says she spoke last summer with some refugees who had escaped from North Korea, leaving behind family. Their stories of separation are heart-wrenching, she said.
Kim worked as a translator for a documentary on North Korean refugees made by students from the University of Texas and was able to speak with about 10 refugees who had escaped North Korea through China before making their way to South Korea.
She said some of the refugees she spoke with had left loved ones behind in North Korea, including children, spouses or other family members, and wanted to help them go to South Korea. Kim said the refugees sent money to China for brokers to help their relatives escape.
She said sometimes this worked, sometimes the family members couldn't be reached and sometimes the relatives were caught by the government.
"They were killed by the government because they wanted to escape North Korea without permission ... that case was so sad," Kim said.
Kim and fellow student Youngkwang Song, who goes by David, expressed their thoughts on the recent reunions allowed by North Korea. Song is a business administration major from Seoul who began studying at MSU in 2011. Kim, from Gwangju, South Korea, is into her second semester at MSU, where she majors in music education with a vocal emphasis.
Song said his mother has worked for Korea Disabled Veterans Organization for 30 years, and through that he has met some Korean War veterans who have family in North Korea whom they miss.
"I saw a lot of people who want unification," Song said.
Both students said they think the reunions are positive for the families involved, but they each have concerns as well.
"I think this is really good for the families, but ... it's not a critical factor for unification," Song said.
As part of reunions - the most recent of which took place in 2010, but were once more common - South Korea has provided North Korea with humanitarian aid. Song expressed disapproval of the use of South Korean funds to aid the North Korean government.
He remarked that North Korea test-launched four missiles on Feb. 21, during the time the reunions were being held. The Associated Press reported Friday that, in addition to the short-range KN-02 missiles fired that day, North Korea fired short-range Scud missiles Thursday, which landed in the water off of its eastern coast.
Song also said the aid South Korea has provided North Korea in the past has gone straight to the North's military and doesn't reach the hands of average citizens.
"If the money helped the North Koreans, I would agree with that," Song said.
A week before the reunions began, a United Nations panel released a report asserting that North Korea is guilty of crimes against humanity, with allegations including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, among others.
Kim said the refugees she spoke with, who had fled North Korea into China before making their way to South Korea, told her the people are starving because the North Korean government doesn't give the aid it receives to the people. Kim said it's better to supply aid to North Korea through international organizations like U.N.I.C.E.F., rather than through the government.
Kim said as a student in America, she misses her family in South Korea and expressed sympathy for people with relatives in North Korea, who are separated involuntarily, and who - unlike Song and her family - have no way to communicate.
Both students expressed a desire for a unified Korea in the future, but neither said they thought that would be possible now, citing economic instability and the need for change in the North Korean government.
Kim said reunification of the two Koreas might initially have a negative economic impact because of the disparity between them, and the advantages and disadvantages would have to be considered before moving forward. Song said that while South Korea is in better shape economically, there is a wide gap between the rich and poor, with a small middle class.
Kim said the North Korean government is too closed off, and she would like to see increased communication between the South Korean and North Korean governments as a step toward eventually bringing the two nations together.
"I think we should unify at some point, but not one year or two years, because ... I think for both countries it would be not so good thing," Kim said.
Contact Leanne Fuller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653