Reunion reality showsRoll up! Roll up! The circus has come to town for one week only! It’s almost two years since this show was last seen - and who knows when the next one will be? You mustn’t miss this.
So switch channels (be sure to have a hanky handy) and join the millions of vicarious voyeurs of the hottest, most heart-tugging show on TV. The concept is just brilliant. I bet the folks at Endemol, global brand leader in reality television, wish they had dreamed up this one.
Here’s the formula. Pick a small country. Arbitrarily cut it in half. Have the two sides fight a horrible war. Wait many decades to let grief fester. Then bring families who got separated in the chaos of division and war together again. Only not really or properly, just for a lousy three days. Thrust cameras into their faces, to capture the tears and wails as they meet - and again when all too soon they part, never to be allowed any contact ever again. That’s it. Show over.
Does this showbiz analogy offend you, dear reader? With all respect, it is the reality - above all, the reality TV aspect - that is offensive. The spectacle we have witnessed this past week at Mount Kumgang, as often before - if also, in another sense, nowhere near often enough - is, let’s face it, grotesque. This is a travesty of what reunions of separated families should be.
Like much else in North-South relations, family reunions have proceeded at a snail’s pace and with no cumulative progress. Indeed they have arguably gone backwards rather than forwards.
When reunions began, people visited the other side and got a glimpse of real life there - albeit a limited one. But unless home was Seoul or Pyongyang, no one got to visit the hometowns whose memory they held dear in their hearts, let alone honor ancestors at the family graves. Real reunions should be in hometowns, as a matter of course and a fundamental human right.
Here’s a quiz. When were those first reunions? No prizes if you said 2000. Though Sunshine Policy myth-makers pretend nothing happened before Kim Dae-jung, in truth the credit goes to the much-reviled Chun Doo Hwan. A brief inter-Korean thaw in 1985 saw family reunions held in the two Korean capitals for a fortunate few. But fifteen long years passed, and many of those separated passed away, before the next reunions took place, also in Pyongyang and Seoul.
Thereafter they happened more often: that was the good news. The bad news was that North Korea didn’t want its citizens seeing how the other half lived. The North insisted that future reunions be held in the artificial bubble of the Hyundai-built Mount Kumgang tourist resort, and demanded the South construct a special reunion center there. Seoul dutifully complied.
That set the pattern we have seen since, twenty times in total now. Each side chooses its lucky 100. The South does this transparently, by a lottery among the 66,000-odd survivors from the original 126,000 applicants (almost half, tragically, have died since the reunions began). How North Korea selects its own favored few is unknown, but no doubt loyalty is a prerequisite.
Everything about this program grates. TV cameras should be banned for a start. The precious three days are all too short. Families deserve full privacy for such an emotional encounter.
Whose idea was it anyway to turn reunions into a quasi-reality TV show? Did the North insist on this to ensure its subjects loyally thank their leaders for their supposedly carefree life? Or is it southern media who demand the right to milk this desperate mix of joy and grief? Is the publicity meant to serve some wider national purpose, or is it just as exploitative as it feels?
If either Korean government had an ounce of compassion, they would not do it this way. Or at least, only once or twice. The Mount Kumgang spectacle should at most have been a first step leading to something better at two levels: both for Korea and for the families involved.
For the families, it is abominably cruel that they get to meet just once. Any normal reunion of persons long separated would mark a new beginning. Modern telecoms make it easy to phone and Skype. Why can’t newly reunited families, not to mention the many more who haven’t yet had the chance to meet, keep in touch in that way? No doubt the Northern regime is the main culprit, but the South’s National Security Law is an obstacle too. Either way, it is an indefensible mockery.
As with the families, so for the nation. Does the Mount Kumgang show bring President Park Geun Hye’s dream of reunification, or the reconciliation many of us would settle for, any nearer? I fail to see how. Even if this kind of limited reunion were held more frequently, as the South hopes, Koreans would still be a world away from the normal, freely chosen, unforced encounters that citizens of China and Taiwan are now able to enjoy. In this, as in much else, the “two Chinas” have made steady progress while the two Koreas have zigzagged or marked time.
No wonder some Koreans are making their own arrangements. The Financial Times reported recently that 1,680 private family reunions have taken place since 1998 in China, brokered by middlemen. That too is precious few, but at least with no cameras people can feel at ease and talk freely. It’s good to know that the Unification Ministry quietly subsidizes such meetings.
As for the Mount Kumgang show, don’t get me wrong. I’m not hard-hearted. These scenes of old people in tears make me cry too. But my tears are partly rage at this travesty of what a true reunion should be. I hope the families are angry too. And I hope against hope that some live to experience the real thing: meeting and talking freely in their hometowns. How long must they wait, or will they all die before that day comes?
*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK.