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Red Cross chief touts humanitarian focus

‘The most important humanitarian issue involving the two Koreas is the reunion of families separated since the Korean War.’

Apr 11,2007
Han Wan-sang
The datebook of Han Wan-sang, head of the South Korean Red Cross, is full these days. As inter-Korean relations that were frozen after the North’s nuclear test last year began to thaw in February, Red Cross-led humanitarian efforts started picking up. The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Han recently to discuss Korea’s separated families, prisoners of war, South Koreans kidnapped to the North and also the issue surrounding Renate Hong, a German woman who has been separated from her North Korean husband for decades. Han, who has in the past served as minister of unification and education, touched on a range of subjects.

Q.Construction of the reunion center for separated families in the Koreas, which had been stalled since July, has resumed. What are your plans for the center and other humanitarian issues?
A.First of all, I would like to stress that humanitarian efforts must never be connected with political or military situations. The most important humanitarian issue involving the two Koreas is the reunion of families separated since the Korean War. More than 10 of them are dying every day. I will do my utmost to ease their pain as quickly as possible.

And what is the stance of North Korea on that issue?
When I visited Pyongyang last year, I told Kim Young-nam, the chairman of the Supreme People’s Congress of North Korea, that to foster inter-Korean exchanges, the logic cannot be “because of,” but “regardless.” In other words, I pleaded with him, it can’t be “an eye for an eye” but that we should try to go forward with humanitarian efforts regardless of the circumstances. Kim understood.

Some critics say that you’re trying to appease North Korea. What’s your response?
I can see how some would think that. But the humanitarian work by the Red Cross is far from appeasement. What we need desperately now is peace. And through being gentle comes true power to bring peace. Being humanitarian is not about passively maintaining the status quo or making concessions.

Should the Korean government be on the same page as the Red Cross?
No. The government, I admit, can’t stick to humanitarianism all the time. I think they have to be more flexible.

Some say the Red Cross should also be critical of human rights problems or hunger issues in North Korea. Do you intend to deliver those messages to the North?
There is a big difference between the way the Red Cross and Amnesty International approach these issues. If there are human rights infringements in dictatorships, Amnesty would publicly criticize the violations. But sometimes, doing so only worsens the pain for the victims because after the human rights activists have done their criticizing, the victims will suffer even more. But the Red Cross chooses not to make things public. We try not to embarrass the government, so that victims don’t have to go through more pain. It’d be much easier if simply talking about these problems protected human rights.
The public wants to know how the Red Cross and the government will try to resolve the issues of South Koreans abducted to the North, and also prisoners of war.

What are your strategies?
Basically, we want the North to check on these kidnapped people and prisoners of war to see if they’re still alive. If so, we would like the North to give them a chance to meet their families and return to the South if they wish. North Korea wants to categorize these people as separated families, and include them in the temporary reunions. I expect the North to be flexible.

How do you respond to criticism that allowing separated families a two-hour meeting through video conference calls can’t possibly ease the pain of more than half a century?
We chose the video meetings because it allows more families to meet than the face-to-face gatherings at Mount Kumgang. But I understand these families need to meet each other in person, have some physical contact. The reunion center at Mount Kumgang will be completed next spring, and that will hold 1,000 people. We expect to see opportunities for face-to-face meetings expand.

The story of Renate Hong, the German who was separated from her North Korean husband in the 1960s, made news worldwide. You wrote a letter to the German Red Cross paving the way for the North’s officials to inform Germany that the husband is alive.
At the end of June, I plan to visit Pyongyang to discuss medical aid to the North, and I will bring this up with North Korean officials. I am not sure how the North Korean Red Cross will respond, but I will try to get more details on the health of the husband, Hong Ok-geun. I also want to emphasize to the North the importance of easing the pain for Renate Hong.

What can the South Korean government do?
The problem here is the South Korean Red Cross is not at the center of this matter: It’s the Red Cross from Germany and North Korea. I don’t think it’d be appropriate for us to tell them what to do. But I do hope the German government will take more action. The German Red Cross has done its best under the circumstances.

Are there plans to expand humanitarian efforts to the North?
So far, the inter-Korean exchanges have involved rice, fertilizer, and other short-term emergency [aid] measures. I think it’s time to look more long-term. One way would be to improve the North’s health care system and cut the death rate. We’re also interested in planting more trees in the North Korean mountain range. Bare mountains cause flood damage to farms and lead to food shortage problems.

Due to criticism that the South has been giving cash to the North, reportedly donations to the Red Cross have been sluggish.
We receive about 42 billion won ($45 million) a year in donations from the public. But we don’t spend a cent of that money on rice or fertilizer. Three hundred thousand tons of fertilizer would cost 110 billion won, but the government’s inter-Korean exchange fund takes care of that. That’s just as important to promote fundamental human rights and peace on the peninsula.


By Lee Chul-hee JoongAng Ilbo[jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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