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The Peninsula

North-South Family Reunions are a Modest Step Forward for Better Inter-Korean Ties

Published August 16, 2018
Author: Robert King
Category: Inter-Korean

By Robert R. King

Earlier this week, on August 15, an advance team of 18 officials from the South Korean Red Cross organization and the South Korean Ministry of Unification left Seoul for the resort at Mount Kumgang in North Korea.  At this location in just a few days, almost two hundred family members from North and South who were separated in the chaos of the Korean War, will again be able to meet the loved ones they have not seen in seven decades.

These reunions of divided families are the first such gatherings to take place in almost three years.  In the 24 such gatherings that have been permitted by North Korea, a total of less than three thousand family members have been permitted to see parents and siblings again, although hundreds of thousands were separated.

The upcoming family reunions will again take place at the Mount Kumgang resort in the southwest corner of North Korea, just across the DMZ border.  This is the site where the previous family reunions have been held, including the last reunion in October 2015.  The resort is in a beautiful mountainous region near the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.  The first upcoming family reunion event involving 93 family members will take place during the period August 20-22.  The second involving 88 family members will follow August 24-26.

The advance team from the South will inspect the facilities and will coordinate with North Korean officials on details and procedures for the events.  These South Korean officials will remain at Mount Kumgang until the end of August.

The Politics of Reunions

For the South these family reunions are principally humanitarian, but for the North it has more to do with politics and economics.  These two reunion events are the result of the April summit four months ago between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  The two agreed to hold these family reunion events as part of the effort to improve the relationship between the North and South.  But the reunions are only a small part of  ambitious plans both sides are considering in an effort to improve North-South ties and establish stronger economic and political relations.

There has been discussion of railroad links, stronger economic ties, and even some quiet suggestions urging the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.  In Kaesong, South Korean enterprises used cheaper North Korean labor to give South Korean companies a competitive advantage and the North Korean government earned significant hard currency.

These more substantive efforts at North-South cooperation, however, are complicated by UN sanctions against the North in response to its nuclear and missile development programs.  The United States has been adamant in pressing to maintain these tough international economic sanctions against the North until there is agreement and compliance with denuclearization, and little progress has been made on that front thus far.  For both the North and South, family reunion events are a less sensitive step forward than other economic actions which would raise concerns about the sanctions.

While the family reunions are not an assault on sanctions, the family meetings will bring modest financial benefit to the North.  The events are held in North Korea, and North Koreans will staff the facilities.  The South will likely pick up the tab for all event costs, which means paying North Korean workers and fees for use of the facilities.  North Korean family members will travel to the resort at Mount Kumgang.  Elderly people in the North will require assistance to travel as well as the costs for transportation, and they will “need” new clothes so they will look their best for the events.  Those costs will likely also be borne by the South.

Furthermore, family members from the South know that conditions are difficult in the North, and they will bring presents for their relatives.  One South Korean man is bringing a $440 down coat for his brother, although the most expensive coat he ever bought for himself cost less than a third of that amount.  His brother certainly could use a good winter coat.  Conditions in the North are harsh, heating in winter is limited at best in the North, and few Northerners can afford a good winter coat.  Cash will flow into the North from the reunions, but because the number of family members is small thus far, it will not be great.

It is clear, however, that the humanitarian aspect of these reunions is the highest concern for leaders of the South.  In the chaos and confusion of the early days after the North Korean invasion of the South in the summer of 1950, families were disconnected.  Parents and children as well as siblings were separated and lost contact with each other, in many cases they had no idea for decades that a family member had survived the war in the North.  For the South Koreans, family reunions are deeply personal and meaningful, and the South Korean government reflects that feeling.

The Numbers of Separated Families

These family reunions are a poignant reminder of the tragic humanitarian consequence of the division of Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). The chaos of that war led to the death of many innocent civilians as well as extensive population migration both ways across what became the armistice line along the 38th parallel when the conflict ended.  Demographic studies indicate that some 646 thousand refugees from North Korea fled to the South during the course of the conflict, while less than half that number, 286 thousand, flowed in the opposite direction.  These were not political or ideological decisions, but quick action to save lives in a crisis.

Hostile relations between the North and South has meant that for the last seven decades contact with relatives across the border has been and continues to be virtually non-existent.  There are no international communication lines between the two countries, and this has been the policy of both sides, though enforcement of separation has been much more rigid and draconian in the North.  Mail seldom gets through from the South.  If a person in the North gets a letter from a relative in the South, it raises questions of illegal contacts and the consequences for a Northerner could be draconian.  Also, for most North Koreans, it is illegal to have a phone that has the capability of making international calls (particularly to South Korea).  It is illegal for a North Korean to make a call to South Korea, and punishment for violation is severe.

The number of South Koreans who have relatives in the North from whom they have been separated was great seven decades ago, but the numbers have dwindled over time as individuals have died.  In the South, individuals register with the Red Cross to indicate their desire to meet with family from the North.  Efforts are made through the Red Cross organizations in both countries to identify with officials from the North whether relatives of individuals in the South are still living, can be found, and are able and interested to travel to meet their relatives.

The South Korean Red Cross has list of almost 60,000 South Koreans who wish to meet loved ones in the North.  Earlier there was no contact permitted at all, but since 2000 some three thousand South Koreans have been able to meet with relatives from the North in carefully controlled, managed and staged reunions.  This is largely an elderly population and the size of the pool is shrinking daily as individuals pass away.  When there are opportunities for family reunions, participants from the South are chosen by lottery, with some preference given to the oldest individuals.

The North has been less than cooperative in setting up such events.  Pyongyang insists that meetings take place on its territory.  North Koreans are ideologically prepared for the meetings with their relatives.  Party officials reportedly warn the Northerners about the dangers and untruths they will hear from their misguided relatives in the South.  The Northerners also reportedly have ideological sessions during the time they are at the reunion events to strengthen them against what they may hear.

The meetings that have taken place in the past have been carefully choreographed, and the meetings next week are expected to follow a similar pattern.  Relatives were only allowed to meet under closely observed conditions and only for limited periods of time.  The most recent meetings that occurred in October 2015 took place over a period of three days.  (Each of the two upcoming events will also extend over three days.)  In the past, there were six two-hour meetings with family members.  The meetings took place in a single large hall with families sitting together at round tables with a large identifying number at each table.  There was no opportunity for intimate private conversations.  Family members were able to eat together, but they did not share living quarters.  The upcoming meetings are expected to follow this same pattern.  These events are once-in-a-lifetime events, and there is no expectation of any subsequent reunions.  (Arirang Television News reporting on the October 2015 family reunions has a series of news reports that give a very good feeling for the actual events.  See Arirang News.)

Kumgang Resort and Previous Reunions

The venue for these family reunion events is the Mount Kumgang resort, a tourist facility in a beautiful and rugged mountainous area.  It was built in the late 1990s by Hyundai Asan, a leading South Korean conglomerate,  to give South Koreans a window on the North.  More importantly, it was intended to be the beginning of a much broader engagement with North Korea, which was consistent with the South Korean government’s “Sunshine Policy” at the time.  When the resort opened in 1998 some 30,000 South Koreans visited the resort in the first two months, and in mid-2005 the resort hosted its one millionth South Korean visitor.

From 2000-2007 during the “Sunshine Policy” era, there were twenty such meetings.  However, with the election of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea’s president (2008-2013), a harder line emerged toward engagement with the North.  Just a few months after Lee’s election, a 53-year-old South Korean female tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers while she was walking near the resort.  Both sides aggressively wrangled over the incident.  As a result the resort was closed and South Korean tourism ceased.  Over the last decade, the resort has been used only a few times for family reunions.  Efforts by the North to encourage tourism from other parts of Asia, particularly China, to fill the gap at the Mount Kumgang facility were not successful.

A Footnote on Korean Americans and Family Reunions

The Korean-American community in the United States has concerns similar to Koreans living in the South with regard to relatives in the North whom they have not seen for decades.  There are some 1.8 million Korean-Americans who are U. S. citizens.  It is estimated by Korean-American organizations that as many as 100,000 Korean Americans have relatives in the North whom they have not seen for seven decades.  There are many elderly Korean Americans who seek the same opportunity to meet with their family members in the North, but they are not included in the South Korean pool of eligible participants.

North Korea has been less willing to consider family reunions with the United States because the North considers the United States its principal enemy.  Furthermore, North Koreans are less likely to admit they have relatives who are in America because of the suspicion and scrutiny that would bring.  Also, Korean-Americans understand these issues and they tend to be concerned about “outing” their relatives in the North by being too open in identifying their relatives.

As Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, I encouraged Korean-Americans trying to reach relatives in the North to work through the American Red Cross, which has been helpful on such issues, though this has been particularly difficult in the case of North Korea.  The American Red Cross has reached out to its North Korean counterpart in an effort to open a channel for Korean-Americans, but the larger issues in the relationship between the United States and North Korea have made any progress extremely difficult thus far.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from KTV blog on Naver.

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