Foundation for reunions is neededMy father’s absence made the Chuseok holiday empty. His presence was a rock for our family even though he didn’t express his affection much - even during the holidays, he would stay in his room to read and write. His grandchildren often felt that he kept a certain distance from them.
He had reasons to keep his emotions to himself. He was from Chongjin, North Hamkyong, and when Korea was liberated, he was in Seoul as a student studying to become a teacher. When the Japanese were driven out, he was assigned to teach at an elementary school in his hometown. But Kim Il Sung’s Communist regime took over. He organized an anti-Communist reading group, and when he became a target of investigation, he fled, telling his wife and four children that he would return soon.
But the 1950-53 Korean War broke out and he was forced to flee to the South, forever to be separated from his family.
He always regretted leaving his wife and young children under Communist rule. While he remarried and had two sons and three daughters, he reserved his affection out of guilt and trauma for the family he had left behind.
He worked as a principal at a middle school, and he adopted two orphan girls from the institution. He already had three daughters, so some were curious about his decision.
But later, I learned that he named the two adopted daughters after his two daughters in the North when my father reunited with his son in Yanbian, China. He asked how his two daughters were doing and uttered the familiar names. I realized that he was soothing his own pain by adopting and raising these daughters. It remained a secret between my father and me.
We hired a broker to arrange the meeting because the chance of being included in the government-organized reunion event was so slim. Being chosen among the final 100 in the lottery process was like winning the jackpot. Each time, my father never made it. His case was an example of a fair lottery process, the authorities explained to the JoongAng Ilbo reporter who covered the Ministry of Unification for 20 years.
On Oct. 20, inter-Korean family reunions will resume, thanks to the high-level contact last month at Panmunjom. The lucky ones are busy preparing thermals, watches and medicines for their families. Their hearts are already in Mount Kumgang.
But the situation is not so simple. North Korea is taking the family reunions hostage and threatening possible nuclear experiments and long-range missile launches. They dare to break the promise any time. While the family reunion is a humanitarian issue, Pyongyang uses it as a political card. Seoul may be faced with a dilemma even if Pyongyang makes a provocation.
The upcoming reunion is the first in 20 months. Since the first event on Aug. 15, 2000, 20 events will have been held, about 1.3 a year. As of the end of July, 129,600 Koreans had applied for family reunions, and 63,400 of them have passed away. More than 7,800 are over 90 years old. Soon the elderly applicants will be fewer than the younger ones.
But while these seniors have desperately been waiting for reunions, the government has refrained from being aggressive. The promise to put the family reunions as a priority in North Korean policy is no longer vowed with emphasis. The Ministry of Unification did not focus on expanding the size of the reunions, exchanging letters or having video conferences at working-level meetings.
And the exchange of a family list, which President Park Geun-hye mentioned at the Liberation Day celebration, went unaddressed.
Government officials seemed to have little determination to break the existing setup, which allows 100 families from the North and the South to meet. They have also ignored public outcry to have reciprocal visits in Seoul and Pyongyang rather than at Mount Kumgang. They are unwilling to improve the situation and seem to want to keep the existing plan.
The system needs to be reviewed to make sure these separated families are properly cared for. It should not be left to a handful of staff members at the Department of Separated Families in the Ministry of Unification. The Red Cross, which focuses on emergency relief and blood bank operations, appears overloaded.
The separated families propose establishing a foundation for family reunions and exchanges to oversee related businesses that are dispersed among the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of the Interior and the Red Cross. Core operations include family database management, survival verification, letter exchanges and reunion applications. The foundation could also provide psychological therapy and related research.
We don’t have time to hesitate. The atmosphere at the reunions has changed and many are not held between separated parents and children or couples, and in many cases, step-siblings or nephews in the North attend on behalf of the deceased.
Rather than a lottery system, older applicants should be given a priority. When the first generation pass away, this family issue will remain unsolved, and the Korean people would be branded as the most cold-hearted and anti-humanitarian group in history.
Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan traumatized and tortured other ethnic groups, but Korea demanded its own people be separated. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” which is entitled to protection by society and the state.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 24
*The author is a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Young-jong