[Viewpoint] Reunited in despairThe first round of reunions for families long separated by the Korean War was held in Seoul and Pyongyang in August 2000, after the first ever North-South Korea Summit meeting on June 15 of that year. At that time, it received an enthusiastic response. Tears welled up in people’s eyes, as couples, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters separated for more than 50 years embraced each other and wept. Although it was embarrassing to hear families from the North trot out the party line, the reunions created a huge sensation.
The response from the North Korean families was similar to that of the South Korean families, although there were some differences. For instance, the North Korean authorities thoroughly prepared for the reunions, such as providing preparatory or post education sessions for members of the separated families poised to participate in the reunions, mindful of the political burden that the reunions will be likely to impose on the regime.
In addition, the North imposed restrictions on its press, broadcasting the event for only a few minutes during the news on the Korean Central Television, bulletins that emphasized North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s determination to allow the “scattered family members” from the South and the North to reunite.
However, these preparations and this level of control and propaganda failed to prevent the dramatic reunions from making a deep impression on the North Koreans. Every single person wept after viewing the short news clip, according to accounts of people living in Pyongyang at that time.
Since then, the reunions of separated families were held twice a year, until October 2007, after which ties between Pyongyang and Seoul began to sour following the election in South Korea of President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative administration.
In any case, people seemed to have had enough of the repeated scenes of weeping, long-lost relatives. South Korea’s domestic press regarded them as an annual event and reported on them only for the sake of formality. In addition, people’s responses tended to be less passionate compared to the 2000 reunions.
One of the issues jamming inter-Korean relations was the resumption of the reunions. However, few people seemed too concerned with trying to get the reunions back on track.
The recent reunions, after a two-year hiatus, reveal North Korea’s sudden interest in the resumption of reunions, apparently for the sake of national interest.
According to people who took the lead in arranging dialogue with the North just before the family reunions were requested, the North thinks it should be entitled to receive corresponding benefits. After all, the reunions of separated families from 2000 to 2007 entailed vast amounts of fertilizer and food aid. So it seems pretty clear that Pyongyang wanted something in return.
“This round of reunion is the hospitality extended by the North. The South should offer its gratitude for the North’s favor,” Jang Jae-on, the chairman of the Central Committee of the Red Cross Society of North Korea, told his South Korean counterpart, Yoo Chong-ha.
These comments can be interpreted as the North’s high expectation that it would get food and fertilizer aid in return as before. In response, South Korean people condemned the North’s shameful exploitation of a humanitarian issue to get aid.
No one can predict when the next round of reunions will resume because we find it difficult to predict that the tension in the inter-Korean relationship will be resolved easily. In addition, there is a not a lot of agreement in the South Korean government on whether or not aid should be given to the North following, and due to, the reunions. Park Sun-kyoo, spokesman for the Blue House, did not respond positively to a plan concerning whether or not to provide corresponding aid for the North. The plan was put forward by Won Sei-hoon, the director of the National Intelligence Service, at the National Assembly last month.
Although the reunions of separated families have had a huge impact on the two Koreas and many circumstances have contributed toward creating the reunions, the results seem to be quite small during the past nine years. The total number of people who have met lost family members in the North is 1,700 so far. This writer’s father was separated from his family and lives in the North. I have been accustomed to the gloomy family atmosphere during Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, since my childhood. Every separated family member thought they would see each other after the Korean War ended, but to our sorrow and regret this has not been the case.
It’s is my view that this round of reunions has brought nothing but despair. One old man in his 70s took his life in Suwon after his application for a reunion was rejected again. Perhaps it’s better for us to forget trying to see our fathers, mothers and siblings as time has almost run out for so many.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo and the Chairperson of the Unification and Culture Research Institute of JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Young-jin