Flexibility is neededChuseok is the nation’s biggest holiday, when families scattered around the country rejoice to be reunited with each other and share the happiness of a good harvest. But that was not the case for hundreds of thousands of families separated during the Korean War (1950-53). They had to console their decades-old pain by holding memorial services for their ancestors at Imjingak Pavilion bordering North Korea. The holiday season only deepens their grief.
Many of those separated family members are in their 70s and 80s and are getting close to dying. Of more than 120,000 applicants for reunions, over 60,000 have passed away since 1988 when the first reunion took place. Except for a lucky group of over 3,000 families who could see their relatives in reunions, most died without enjoying a reunion. 2,500 of them died during the last eight months alone and half of the survivors are older than 80. Despite many issues pending between South and North Korea, there is no more urgent and desperate cause than letting these people see their relatives one last time.
One month has passed since the South Korean government proposed talks to discuss mutual concerns, including reunions of separated families. North Korea must come to the table without trying to link that humanitarian issue to other political issues. In a timely move, North Korean Premier Pak Pong-ju stressed Tuesday the importance of improving South-North relations on the occasion of the 66th anniversary of the foundation of the Pyongyang regime. If North Korea really wants to thaw our frozen ties, it must first solve the most pressing issue: allowing those separated relatives to meet one another.
Once mutual trust is built, it could lead to more active exchanges and cooperation on a much larger scale than before. It doesn’t make sense for North Korea to dismiss the issue of family reunions. According to news reports, the North Korean government has started negotiations with the United States over three Americans detained in the reclusive country, probably with the goal of seeking political and economic advantages in return for their releases.
Our government needs to be more flexible. For instance, it must consider large-scale humanitarian aid to the North when and if Pyongyang accepts Seoul’s request for family reunions. The conservative Park Geun-hye administration needs to see the reunion issue in the larger perspective of improved relations. Considering the North’s hypersensitive reaction to reunions due to the huge economic gap between the two sides, the government can find a practical solution such as a closed-door meeting of separated families. Even though the government has lost a precious opportunity at the time of Chuseok, it must not delay the reunions until winter.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 11, Page 30