Ajummas. If you’ve been to famous tourist spots around the world you’ve seen them. Packs of middle-aged to older South Korean women, usually donning oversize visors, some form of bright hiking gear and some, inexplicably, with purple hair. And most mornings, some will touch down in Beijing on flights from Seoul and Busan at around 10 a.m., about the same time as the Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang arrives.
One morning, a groups of Ajummas (who can be fairly oblivious travellers much of the time) trundled up to our Air Koryo baggage claim carousel and stood there for a second. Like the self-satisfied twerp I am, I joked, “Oh, are you from Pyongyang?” They blinked for a second and then erupted in laughter as they realised their mistake and went off unfazed and uncurious to find their bags.
Beijing Capital Airport is a study in North and South Koreans not noticing or pretending not to notice each other. Sometimes, as with those older ladies, that disinterest is genuine. Often, though, while in the queue at immigration or that last desperate Starbucks in Terminal 2, I’ve noticed younger South Korean travellers realise they are in line with a group of their northern kin. They’ll usually do a minor double take, steal a glance at the Kim badge, then return to their phones, probably to look at pictures of food. It’s hard to know exactly what is at work here, indifference or awkwardness or some combination of the two. Certainly, its easy to project what the polls tell us about attitudes towards unification onto the ambivalent traveller’s posture.
North Koreans, for their part, seem to take better note of their surroundings and can be seen eavesdropping a bit when near their Southern family. They tend to get a bit stoic and certainly don’t initiate any interaction. We'll see if change is in the air on this: a recent rumour is that Northerners stationed abroad have been told to "demonstrate flexibility" when meeting Southerners. Still, its just a rumour.
For now, to an outsider, it remains a sad, awkward thing to observe: these Beijing Airport interactions are one of the many minor melancholies that make up the larger tragic story of modern Korea.
After all, how long can a family not talk to one another? How many generations can a family feud persist before they aren’t really a family any more?
It's hard to imagine there won't be a unified Korea someday because the idea still carries potency even if it has become diluted by other ideas in the south. But someday, an important marker in inter-Korean relations will be when Koreans from both countries feel comfortable enough – probably before they are allowed to visit one another’s countries – to have a normal chat in an airport in another county. Probably in a crappy Starbucks.