Separated Families’ Reunion: Steady, Systematic, Fair

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Separated Families’ Reunion: Steady, Systematic, Fair

Red Cross societies in South and North Korea finally determined to hold talks about the reunion of families separated by the Korean War (1950-53) on June 23. The top item on the talks agenda will be the exchange of relatives from the South and North to take place on August 15, National Liberation Day, as laid out in the June 15 Joint Declaration. President Kim Dae-jung has announced that groups from both sides comprising about 100 separated family members will be exchanged.

But the pressures of time demand that further exchanges are agreed soon. Of the 1,230,000 registered first-generation separated family members, 690,000 are aged over 60. This first exchange is only the first step.

The South and North must work not to allow this special chance for reunions to become a one-time show - or to aggravate the tears and regrets of the separated families. The debate about the reunion of dispersed families began in the 1950s, immediately after the truce. In 1985, 151 members of separated families from South and North Korea were exchanged for the first time, but governments failed to establish regular exchanges and to diversify methods of contact.

The reunions must take place in agreed conditions. In the past, problems occurred when South Korean groups were made to watch pro-revolutionary North Korean operas, and when North Korean groups watched military exercises in the South. The reunited families must not be subjected to displays of political or ideological propaganda, and both Koreas must refrain from provocative behavior. The reunions are solely for humanitarian purposes.

The North Korean wives of Japanese men residing in North Korea visited their South Korean hometowns in 1997 and 1998 in groups of 15 and 12 members. But these visits were discontinued due to distrust and confrontation. We must learn from this example in our future handling of reunions.

The Red Cross talks, to be held on June 23, will deal not only with issues related to the reunion on August 15, but with reunion schedules after this date. To achieve the ‘reunion of families at their own free will’ - as set down in the 'Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchange and Cooperation between South and North Korea' - is of course the central aim in the long term. However, we must work steadily toward this goal, accumulating mutual trust along the way. It is impossible to achieve everything at once.

The most pressing task is to confirm the wellbeing and whereabouts of dispersed family members in North Korea. This should not prove difficult - North Korea has kept data including the addresses of dispersed families at the address information office of the Ministry of Public Security.

The first visible outcome of the South-North Joint Declaration will be the reunification of the families divided by the DMZ. It is imperative that this symbolic and humanitarian emblem of improving inter-Korea relatinos is maintained, and that further agreements are made on the basic framework to reunite dispersed families, including permanent meeting places and exchanges of letters and photos.

Koreans now residing in South Korea but originating from North Korean hometowns are already lining up at the government, including the Ministry of Unification, with hopes renewed by the positive outcome of the summit. The government must establish fair standards for selection - such as priority based on age and family relationship - to maximize the transparency of the process. We also believe that the continuing discussion about reunions must not exclude prisoners of war, North Korean defectors and South Koreans kidnapped by North Korea.

These negotiations must be conducted following these accepted principles and standards. We cannot pay only lip service to the reunion of dispersed family members. A continuous, systematic, fair program of reunions is the first and most important step in resolving the tragedy of the division of our nation.

by Hong Byung-ki

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