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The Peninsula

Yoon Unlikely to Succeed in Reuniting Divided Korean Families

Published October 21, 2022
Category: Inter-Korean

Ahead of the Chuseok holiday last month, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said South Korea was interested in negotiations with North Korea about holding another round of inter-Korean family reunions. The urgency of the issue has only increased since the last time they were held, back in 2018. In his remarks at a government press conference, Minister Kwon noted that 400 people in the South had died this month without reconnecting with their relatives in the North. “Holding a one-off reunion with a small number of people as in the past is not enough,” he said. “[We] must resolve the problem before the word of ‘separated family’ disappears.” he added. Experts say that despite the best efforts of the Yoon government, it will likely face difficulties in engaging North Korea on this issue.

As is so often the case, North Korea’s strict control on information in the name of regime security remains a significant obstacle. “The risk from the North Korean point of view is that relatives find out about what’s going on outside, and the North is paranoid about keeping it under control,” said Ambassador Robert King, who served as the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights under the Obama administration. He said that the North only allows families to attend family reunions after government indoctrination, and also deploys government minders to eavesdrop. “The North Koreans clearly see the benefits of these things is very limited from their point of view,” he said.

The first inter-Korea family reunion is an instructive example. After South Korea experienced severe flooding in 1984, Seoul accepted humanitarian aid from the North. The then-president of the South Korean Red Cross Society, Yu Chang-sun, said that he hoped it would lead to “genuine mutual aid between fellow countrymen…and to improve relations between North and South Korea.” Writing for 38 North in 2020, Dr. James Foley says that delivery kicked off negotiations between the respective Red Cross committees of both Koreas that resulted in 50 South Koreans traveling to Pyongyang, and 50 North Koreans going to Seoul. Warmer inter-Korean relations would continue until joint American-South Korean military exercises in 1986. But rapprochement has to start somewhere, says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Under the current circumstances, I would suggest that the overall atmosphere between the two Koreas is adverse to cooperation,” he said. “But the offer itself…provides the North Koreans with affordable opportunity to shift policy if they so desire.”

Breaking the impasse in inter-Korea relations is a critical to realizing another round of family reunions. Not only has the South’s proposal been met with silence, the North more broadly vehemently rejected the Yoon administration’s North Korea policy, which has been dubbed its “audacious initiative.”  Dr. Gregg Brazinsky, Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said that even the progressive Moon Jae-in administration faced difficulties in engaging North Korea towards the end of his time in office. “Conservative governments have more constraints in dealing with North Korea, so the range of things they could offer is actually smaller,” he said. Things that Pyongyang actually wants, such as reduced security cooperation with the Americans, would run counter to the desires of conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol’s base. “I think it’s quite limited what Yoon could potentially offer in exchange for talks on the subject,” said Dr. Brazinsky.

Other experts said that South Korea should think carefully about what it offers North Korea. In his remarks, Minister Kwon said the government is “ready to make every effort to alleviate the pain of division any time, anywhere, in any way possible.” Olivia Enos, an Asia policy analyst based in Washington, said that language was alarming given the North’s reticence. “That’s concerning to me because Pyongyang will just extract financial gains or other potentially beneficial diplomatic means for the regime,” she said. “It’s never prioritizing the families.”

The language used by Minister Kwon can also be interpreted as meaning South Korea has no preconditions for talks, a stance adopted by the Americans, who similarly want to engage the North Koreans. Still, Ms. Enos says she is cautious about engagement with North Korea, given its past behavior. “Maybe there’s some temporary changes, but very rarely are there permanent changes that lead to a fundamental transformation in the balance of power environment in Asia,” she said.

Even if North Korea resists holding in-person meetings, there are other options available to Seoul. The pandemic has strongly normalized holding virtual events, and in 2019, the United Nations granted the North a sanctions waiver to import the necessary equipment. The South could also work with international organizations operating in the North to just confirm details on the survival of divided families. “The South Korean government should consider what can be done to help facilitate closure unilaterally for elderly South Korean divided families,” said Paul Lee, an advocate for reuniting divided families the world over. “I think confirming whether their loved ones have passed or not is what most divided families surveyed want to know at this point.”

The passage of time exerts a pressure all its own on the South Korean government. “The issue is going to lose political salience [in South Korea] because it’s already been 72 years since the Korean War started,” said Dr. Brazinsky. The primary members of divided families are passing away, leaving people with weaker and weaker relations with people in the North. As a result, future South Korean governments may be inclined to lower the priority of resolving this issue. “There are families that have been divided and still really want to see each other,” said Dr. Brazinsky, “but the numbers are dwindling, and numbers are important in politics.” Ambassador King says running out the clock on Seoul works to Pyongyang’s advantage. “Simply stretching it out is a win for the North,” he said. “There’s no incentive to move forward and make progress.”

While their numbers may dwindle and face significant hurdles, the Yoon administration should not give up on reuniting families divided on the Korean Peninsula. “Inherent in every human is the need to be seen and to be loved, but these families have been separated and denied that. It’s heartbreaking,” said Ms. Enos. Seoul should make clear to Pyongyang that movement on these kinds of humanitarian issues can help build an environment that can tackle more contentious ones. “If the North Koreans are not even willing to cooperate on facilitating a short-term humanitarian exchange issue that has political salience like this in South Korea,” said Mr. Snyder, “then what hope should one have for anything more in the inter-Korean relationship?”

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from KTV blog on Naver.


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