Korea reunions anger, frustrate waiting families
SEOUL, South Korea — In a few weeks, Hong Nam-soon likely will sit in front of a TV and watch as people — wrinkled and stooped with age — reunite with relatives they haven’t seen since the Korean War.
She wonders why she can’t be among them.
Hong has dreamed for more than six decades of seeing her younger sister, who disappeared in the early days of the Korean War.
After decades of searching, Hong, now in her 80s, doesn’t even know whether her sister is dead or alive. She has asked the South Korean government for help for years and is heartbroken that she will not be part of the next round of reunions later this month.
“My body is sick,” she said. “I feel bitter that, after all these painful years, I haven’t been able to see the person who I want to see.”
After weeks of tension that ended in rare talks in August, the two Koreas agreed to hold family reunions for the first time since February 2014.
The reunions are an exercise in anger and frustration for the separated families — at the South Korean government for not doing more to help them stay in touch with their relatives, at the North for halting the reunions again and again, and at their own helplessness.
Pyongyang has threatened to cancel the reunion in response to calls from the South for North Korea to halt a threatened rocket launch this month.
“It’s just a show,” Choung Pill-hoon, Hong’s son, said of the upcoming reunion, in which 100 families will participate. “It’s ridiculous.”
With so few taking part, the government will not be able to make much headway with the backlog of aging South Koreans longing to be reunited with their relatives.
Of the nearly 130,000 South Koreans who have applied to take part in the reunions, about 60,000 are still alive. Only 3,934 families have been reunited with relatives since 2000, according to the South’s Unification Ministry.
Choung doesn’t believe his mother will ever be able to meet her sister under the current system for the reunions, which are used as a bargaining chip by the North and held only at rare points when rela-tions are, if not friendly, on the upswing.
He said the South Korean government should at least help families find out whether their relatives are still alive and provide a way for them to communicate, even if it’s just by mail. He believes that Seoul should do whatever it takes to make more reunions happen, even if it means paying the North to hold them.
Choung also said he believes that if the governments can’t make the reunions happen, they should be scheduled and run by the Red Cross and the United Nations to make sure they’re not derailed by po-litical tensions on the peninsula.
“The governments have been using the reunions politically as bait, haven’t they?” he said. “The reunions should have been held from the start regardless of politics.”
A U.N. human rights official last month called the North’s use of a lottery system to select a small number of its people to take part in the reunions “extremely cruel.”
Michael Kirby, who headed a U.N. commission that last year published a critical report on North Korea’s human rights abuses, said the North was furthering the suffering of separated family members.
“At the present rate of 100 being given that privilege, many, many will die before the numbers are accommodated,” he said last month in Geneva, according to Agence France-Presse. “It is extremely cruel of the administration of [North Korea] and a breach of fundamental human rights to deny the opportunity for families to be reunited.”
‘I want to know’
Even with no prospect of taking part in this month’s reunion, Hong’s efforts to find her sister persist.
She took part last year in a pilot program to collect genetic data from elderly South Koreans with relatives believed to be in the North, with the goal of someday linking them — or more likely, their de-scendants. She has heard nothing from the Korean Red Cross, which collected the DNA information.
Choung went to the Chinese border 11 years ago and broadcast a radio message into the North in hopes of finding news about his aunt. He learned nothing.
Today, he’s considering traveling again to a region of China bordering the North and paying a broker to find his aunt — if she’s alive — and bring her to the border where they can meet.
Even though she is too frail to go to the supermarket, Hong wants to go there, too.
“I want to know whether she’s alive, even though she might have passed away,” she said. “I wish the state would do whatever it takes to confirm whether she’s alive or not.”