Viva the Reunion Drama!

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Viva the Reunion Drama!

The profoundly moving "reunion drama" of the separated family members began yesterday, Korea’s first Liberation Day of the new millenium. Most South Koreans were glued to their TVs all of yesterday evening, watching the tearful reunions. There seemed to be no end to the tragic and heart-rending stories.

There was the mother in the last stages of terminal cancer who checked out of the hospital to greet her son from the North. There was another mother who had for decades kept a faded photograph of her infant daughter, taken 100 days after she was born. She gave it yesterday to her now middle-aged daughter who came to the South for the first time in fifty years. These poignant scenes were enough for anyone to acutely perceive the emotional wounds inflicted by the national division, and to wonder why they were not allowed to meet earlier.

Imagine the anguish, incidentally, of the vast majority of separated family members who were not selected to participate in this reunion.

The exchange visits by separate families is the first objective of the June 15 Joint Declaration to realize a practical outcome. This forcefully demonstrates why the South and North must actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation. A North Korean Koryo Airline aircraft, which carried the delegations of both sides, passed over South Korea yesterday for the first time since the national division. This is a sign that even deeply-rooted distrust and military tensions can be overcome, if the will and the resolve exist.

It is important to expand the forms of reunion so that the chronically grief-stricken people separated from their families can be alleviated. We must not repeat the short-sighted folly of stopping after just one exchange visit, as we did fifteen years ago. In this regard, we welcome Chairman Kim Jong-il's August 12 statement that he will allow separated families to meet once each in September and October this year, and also consider the possibility of allowing them to visit the homes of their relatives next year.

We urge the two Koreas to begin comprehensive discussions to agree on a schedule for these reunions. During the August 29 second round of ministerial talks and also during next month's Red Cross talks, both sides should strive to arrange regular reunions for separated family members.

Even more urgent is the need to diversify the procedures and methods of contact between the separated families. More than 77,000 South Koreans have applied for visits to the North so far; the number of separated family members is 7.67 million in the South alone. Do the math. If the reunions are conducted in groups of 100, like now, most will never be reunited with their relatives.

A permanent meeting place must be established. The two Koreas must also confirm whether the relatives are alive or dead, find out their addresses, and allow exchanges of letters, photographs and gifts. The truce village of Panmunjom is the most appropriate channel for such meetings, exchanges, and other forms of contact. Fortunately, a fiber-optic cable line linking Seoul and Pyongyang by way of Panmunjom will be operational by the end of August. This can be useful for enabling communication between separated families. Moreover, visitors from the two Koreas will be able to travel across the border by train once the severed section of the Kyongui railway is restored.

We believe that government authorities of the two Koreas should swiftly confirm the life or death status of South Korean prisoners of war and other people abducted by the North. Those still alive should be repatriated as soon as possible. It is reprehensible that their fate be ignored while the North Korean prisoners in the South are repatriated to their North Korean homes and pro-North Korean residents in Japan are allowed to visit their families in the South.

South Korean authorities should keep this issue in mind, in order to enable all who have separated from their loved-ones to experience the joy of reuniting with their families, and to perpetuate this national euphoria.

by Park Hyun-young

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