by Choe Sang-Hun
from the New York Times
Seoul, South Korea. In August 1996, the Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk from South Korea, was cruising down the Yalu River between China and North Korea when he saw a boy squatting alone at the North Korean edge of the water. The boy was in rags, his gaunt face covered in dirt.
Pomnyun shouted to him, but the boy did not respond. Pomnyun’s Chinese companion explained that North Korean children were instructed never to beg from foreigners. And when Pomnyun asked if the boat could be steered closer to the child to bring help, he was reminded that they could not enter North Korean territory.
“Never before had I realized the meaning of a border so painfully until that day,” said Pomnyun, 59. “Never before had I felt so acutely that Korea is a divided nation.”
The encounter led him to establish one of the first relief campaigns for North Korean refugees and to take on an unlikely role for a Buddhist monk. Today, rather than leading a secluded life of quiet contemplation, he is a well-known commentator on North Korea, his online newsletter an important source of information smuggled out of the isolated country.