Letters from North families slow down to trickle

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Letters from North families slow down to trickle

Korean families separated by the Korean War have scant chances to communicate.

Intermittent family reunions are one such chance, but they are allowed or canceled depending on the political climate between the two Koreas.

The only other mode of communication is letters delivered through third countries. And now that window appears to be gradually closing, according to the Ministry of Unification and diplomatic sources yesterday.

In the first seven months of this year, nine letters were exchanged between separated families via a third country, the official said. That’s a huge fall off from previous years.

According to ministry data, there were 961 letter exchanges between the families in 2003, which was the highest amount for a single year.

The family reunions, which started in earnest in 2000, were stopped after a South Korean tourist was shot to death at the Mount Kumgang resort in July 2008.

Government-arranged reunions brought together 3,829 families from 1985. Private groups also arranged reunions that brought together 1,737 families.

Another round was held one year ago, in which around 100 families were reunited.

None have been held since thanks to the tension between the Koreas following the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.

In the case of the letters written by separated families, they are carried out of North Korea by brokers, who give them to family members who have traveled to a third country, usually China, or they give them to other brokers who bring them to South Korea.

Because the exchanges need brokers, payments and sometimes bribes are required, and the cost of the transfers is rising, according to those with knowledge of the exchange, leading to a fall off.

One letter sent from the North read, “In the past, it was okay just to give money to a rank-and-file [North Korean] soldier, but now we have to give money to officers as well.”

Stricter regulations imposed by Pyongyang might also have made the exchanges more difficult.

The official said most letters were sent from the North, often requesting money or medicines from the family members in the South.

“I can’t move my arms and legs as freely as I used to do because of cerebral thrombosis,” a North Korean wrote in a letter sent in August to his brother in the South. The letter was acquired and disclosed by the ministry.

“I am now bed-ridden and there aren’t many things that I can do,” the letter read. “My wife is also ailing. Please help us as much as you can.”

Half of the letters, the ministry official said, ask for medicine.

In addition, North Korean families are imploring their families in the South not to send goods that are easily identified as South Korean, especially things that have images of South Korean landmarks or names of South Korean brands, which suggests some kind of a new crackdown by North Korean authorities.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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