North Korea plays the cruellest game with family reunions
By allowing limited reunions with Koreans divided by the country’s separation in 1945, North Korea exploits human suffering to inflict more punishment
The bait of reunions of members of families divided by the Korean war has got to be about the most cynical ploy devised by the North Koreans to exploit human suffering for no reason other than to inflict cruel punishment on defenceless people.
We all have heard many times why the North Koreans built up their nuclear strength. For “self-defence,” they say, to the applause of pro-northers and other useful idiots who think, sure, devices for wiping out millions are just the thing to ward off an enemy attack.
We also know the stock answer for why the North Koreans have imprisoned millions over the years in a vast gulag system where they slave away unto death by starvation, disease, torture or execution. It’s all fabrication, says the North Korean propaganda machine. “Prove it,” echoes the pro-north chorus.
OK, but can anyone come up with any rationale for why North Korea has countenanced only 21 reunions of divided families since South Korea’s then-president Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il in a joint declaration of June 15, 2000, agreed “to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange of visits by separated family members and relatives”.
I vividly remember the first such reunion. It was in the COEX Convention Hall in Seoul on August 15, 2000, 55th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and the division of the Korean peninsula. Journalists could wander freely as 100 North Korean family members embraced dozens of relatives who had fled the North in the early days of the Korean war. Simultaneously, at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, 100 South Koreans met relatives who had stayed in the North.
The South Koreans at the COEX were winners of a lottery in which more than 116,000 people bid for the chance. The assumption was family reunions would occur regularly so most of the survivors among 10 million members of families divided by the war would eventually be chosen.
In the decade of the Sunshine policy, initiated by Kim Dae-jung during his presidency from 1998 to 2003 and perpetuated by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, for another five years, there were 16 family reunions plus four video conferences. Quickly the North Koreans took control, insisting they all be held at the Mount Geumgang resort, just above the North-South line. They wanted to be sure no North Koreans would come back from Seoul talking about the wonders of modern South Korea. Also, of course, there would be no danger of some North Korean bolting into South Korean hands screaming he wanted to stay in the south.
In 2008, Lee Myung-bak, Roh’s conservative successor, cut off free shipments of grain and fertiliser. North-South relations plunged to new lows as the North conducted nuclear and missile tests. Then, in April 2010, a torpedo fired by a North Korean mini-submarine sank the corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Between 2008 and this week, there were only three reunions with about 20,000 South Koreans in attendence.
As far as the South Koreans are concerned, the North Koreans should agree to reunions all the time, maybe every month. Soon, there may be no more South or North Koreans left to go to Mount Geumgang. This year, the South Koreans who went were selected from among 57,000 still alive more than 65 years after the truce was signed.
It’s not certain how the North chooses its citizens to meet relatives from the South, but the assumption is they are beneficiaries of loyal service. In those first three reunions, I ran into a few who had gone North in the early days of the Korean war and joined the Korean People’s Army. Or so they said.
Liberal President Moon Jae-in has requested regular reunions. That’s nothing new. Lee, now in prison, made the same request during reunions in September 2009. As long as Kim thinks Moon will bend to his will, we can be pretty sure he’ll agree. It’s a cruel game in which the most vulnerable people are pawns made to suffer at the whims of a power-hungry dictator.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea