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North Korea

Separated families must not be forgotten at Korean summit

Peace and stability will be key issues when the leaders of North and South Korea meet next month. But increasing reunions for ageing relatives should also be on the agenda

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 11:10pm

Reunions of families separated by the Korean war 65 years ago are as cruel as they are kind. Close relatives divided by ideology, politics and a heavily guarded border finally get to meet, and hours later, are forced apart, never to communicate again. But they are the lucky ones; the meetings happen only when relations between North and South Korea are good and the less than 100 people from each side are chosen from among tens of thousands. The erratic nature of the process, the small number selected and the advanced age of those involved inevitably means that the vast majority will never get to see their loved ones before they die.

Tears of joy and sadness have been openly flowing since Monday when the latest round of reunions began at the North Korean tourist resort of Mount Kumgang. About 330 South Koreans from 89 families met 185 North Korean relatives. The three-day process began again on Friday and ends today. The reunions resulted from a halt to North Korean nuclear and missile tests and a summit between the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, at the border truce village of Panmunjom on April 27.

Joy and tears as South Korean elders meet relatives in North

Moon, who comes from a separated family, well knows the symbolic significance of the reunions. He has been pushing for improved inter-Korean relations since taking office last year and will travel to Pyongyang next month for a third summit with Kim. As the latest reunions were taking place, he called for the process to be scaled up and held regularly. But the approach is from a humanitarian standpoint, at odds with that of North Korea, which has treated reunions as a bargaining chip, only allowing them to take place in return for food and fertilisers.

Statistics also reveal the sad reality: While the North Korean figures are not known, the South’s are readily available, showing, as of May, 56,890 people waiting for the chance to be reunited with parents or siblings. Government data shows that 21 per cent are aged in their 90s and 41 per cent in their 80s. The latest round of reunions are the 21st since the programme began in 1985, giving thousands of Koreans what is essentially an opportunity of a lifetime. The limitations mean that dozens of Koreans die each day without their wish coming true.

Researchers estimate that to ensure all separated families have a chance for a reunion at least once, a minimum 7,300 people would have to be reunited each year. There is little chance of that happening while North Korea continues to see them in opportunistic terms. At the least, they should take place more regularly and be bigger in scale and consideration should be given to the use of video devices. Peace and stability will be the key issues at the upcoming summit, but separated families must not be forgotten.