An end to the reunions

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An end to the reunions

Eighty-nine South Koreans will meet their long-separated North Korean relatives today at a guesthouse in Mount Kumgang resort. During their three-day, two-night stay in a local hotel through Aug. 22, they will be reunited with their 197 siblings and family members from the North. In another reunion later this week, 83 North Koreans will meet their 337 South Korean family members separated 68 years ago after the breakout of the 1950-53 Korean War. The dramatic reunions take place 34 months after the last ones in 2015.

South Korean families scheduled to meet with their northern counterparts desperately want to see their relatives after the nearly seven decades of separation — each with their own heart-rending story. Despite their two-night, three-day stay in North Korea, they can only meet their relatives for 11 hours over six gatherings. As has always been the case, the guesthouse suddenly turns into a spot for excitement, euphoria and then wailing as people realize that they can hardly expect to see their North Korean family again.

The two countries so far have had 21 inter-Korean reunions, including video meetings, since 1985. Some 4,186 South Korean families — or 19,930 family members — have met with their North Korean counterparts as of May. But the reality is grim. Of the 132,603 separated South Koreans who have applied for the reunions, 75,544 are dead. Sixty-two percent of the remaining 57,059 are in their 80s and about 4,000 die each year.

Because only about 100 citizens are chosen each time, most separated South Koreans cannot see their North Korean relatives even half a century after they last met. Political pundits compare it to a lottery.

It is fortunate that the reunion event could take place in accordance with the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But it is time to find a solution. The reunion event must not be a card played in inter-Korean talks. Both sides must not transform it into a political event as if it were a symbol of reconciliation. This is an issue involving human rights. The intermittent event is nothing but a tragicomedy in an era when we can easily video call somebody on the other side of the world.

We must end this farce. South and North Korea must confirm if people are dead and help those that are still with us to communicate. Both sides must make efforts to allow reunions on a regular basis and set up a permanent interview room. Kim Jong-un cannot change his country into a normal one by turning up on the global stage with his wife. Excluding this humanitarian issue from his negotiations with the South is the key to becoming a normal state.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 20, Page 30
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