The clock ticks

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The clock ticks

The long-awaited reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War have finally resumed after more than three years and four months. Eighty-two South Koreans met 178 members of their families yesterday at the Mount Kumgang resort with sheer joy combined with an uncontrollable sadness over the division of the Korean Peninsula. After the two-night, three-day event is over, 88 North Koreans will meet 361 members of their families from the South. After their first meetings in six decades are over, they have to say farewell with no promise of ever seeing each other again. Their pain and agony cannot be described in words. The intermittent reunions - one time only - are the kind of unimaginable encounters that symbolize the tragedy of the Korean Peninsula.

It is time to take a new approach to the issue of reunions as separated relatives don’t have many days left. Many of them are already in their 80s and 90s. In the beginning, 96 South Koreans and 100 North Koreans were supposed to meet their relatives last September, but to no avail due to the North’s unilateral decision to suspend the reunions for political reasons. In the meantime, however, some of those relatives in both the South and North died. If you include those who gave up on the reunions due to health reasons, more than 30 couldn’t meet their relatives.

A total of 129,287 South Koreans have applied for reunions so far. Among them, nearly a half - 57,784 - passed away. Since 2003, an average of 3,800 of those people have died annually. More than half of the survivors are in their 80s and over. The situation for relatives in the North is obviously even more desperate. There weren’t any North Koreans above the age of 90 yesterday, while there were 25 from the South. Yet reunions have taken place only 19 times since 2000, turning them into something like annual events.

A comprehensive agreement is needed. Both sides must separate reunions from political issues to guarantee their continuity. Just as South Korea provides humanitarian aid to North Korea regardless of fluctuations in inter-Korean ties, the North must take the same approach to reunions. The South also must increase its humanitarian aid to the North. Second, both sides should hold reunions regularly. To do that, they need to change the process of selecting families from the current lottery-based system to a seniority-based one. Finally, the government could link reunions to President Park Geun-hye’s North Korea initiative. The president’s DMZ peace park could be the meeting place for the reunions. The clock has never ticked louder.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 21, Page 30

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