[Viewpoint]The agony of separation

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[Viewpoint]The agony of separation

In Buddhism, life is a sea of suffering. Birth, old age, sickness and death are four fundamental agonies of human existence unless enlightenment is achieved. Buddhism teaches that life is full of suffering because of attachment. The pain of being separated from a loved one is a suffering originating from this form of desire directed at another person. If you are not attached, separation is not so painful.

The story of Renate Hong appeared in the JoongAng Ilbo on Aug. 6. The German woman reunited with her husband, Hong Ok-geun, in Pyongyang 47 years after the two were separated. When Mr. Hong left his wife at a train station in Jena, East Germany in April 1961, both were in their 20s. Now, the couple reunited as septuagenarians with snowy hair and wrinkled faces. The human-created political system that caused this situation is too absurd to be able to explain Mrs. Hong’s pain as she waited for the emotional moment for almost half a century.

Renate Hong married Hong Ok-geun, a student from North Korea, and the couple lived together in East Germany. But she had to let her husband go because the North Korean government recalled its students living in East Germany. Mrs. Hong raised their two sons and never remarried. Mr. Hong remarried in North Korea when his attempts to reunite with Renate were frustrated. Mrs. Hong, however, swallowed the pain of the loss all alone.

Due to the international pressure ignited by JoongAng Ilbo’s report about her plight, Mrs. Hong was finally allowed to visit North Korea to reunite with her long-lost husband last month. Renate spent a precious 12 days with Mr. Hong in Pyongyang. Although her dream of meeting her husband once again before she dies has come true, the joy of the reunion must have been soon overwhelmed by yet another painful separation that could possibly leave them apart forever.

Mrs. Hong’s reunion with her husband in Pyongyang is more than just an emotional moment to many of us. There are still so many Koreans who have yet to be reunited with their lost family members. Between 1988 and the end of July this year, 127,268 Koreans had registered with the Ministry of Unification’s Integrated Information Center for Separated Families. Since the June 15 joint declaration in 2000, there have been 16 reunion events for separated families. However, only 15,000 South Koreans have successfully met their lost family members. Far more people are waiting for their turn or to find out whether their separated family members are alive or not.

A more serious problem is that many of the applicants are senior citizens like Mr. and Mrs. Hong. According to the Ministry of Unification, 2,000 to 4,000 reunion applicants pass away every year. So far, 35,484 applicants have passed away while waiting for their turn, nearly three out of 10 of those registered. Of those that remain, 74 percent are 70 or older. The number of people who die before ever meeting their loved ones again is expected to grow rapidly in the future.

That is why we need to resume the separated family reunion events as soon as possible. A reunion center has been built to accommodate the events, but during the Lee Myung-bak administration the meetings have been completely suspended.

Pyongyang’s insincerity is largely responsible for the suspension. It is inhumane to stop family reunions because they are not satisfied with the new administration in the South. North Korea has to return to the Red Cross talks.

In a letter Mr. Hong had written to Renate, “Politics sometimes makes foolish errors,” disguising it as a comment about the East German government’s refusal to let her visit North Korea. Suspending family reunions because of an administration change is indeed foolish politics.

It is unbearable for parents to be separated from their children without any promise of seeing them again. Brothers and sisters suffer greatly when they are separated. It is truly agonizing for a young couple in love to be separated, and then to have to part once again soon after they are reunited. The South and North Korean authorities have to ease their suffering.

On Aug. 15 next week, President Lee Myung-bak is to give a speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the republic. I hope the address can provide an opportunity to relieve inter-Korean tensions and to resume the family reunions.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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