THE INTER-KOREAN reunion that was to be held on Sept. 25 was abruptly postponed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, three days before the long-awaited event. The North announced that they wished to postpone the event indefinitely until the North and the South build a long-lasting, negotiable relationship. This left the 196 candidates selected for the reunion by the North and South Red Cross in their greatest dismay, as the inter-Korean reunion had been greatly anticipated after three years of waiting.
The history of inter-Korean reunion
To the fortunate generations born in an era of peace after the Korean War, living with one’s family is more or less given. However, this is a different matter for those who suffered from the aftermaths of the Korean War. According to the Integrated Information System for Separated Families, a staggering number of 10 million South Korean citizens have been separated from their families in the North after taking refuge in the South after the Korean War. According to the Korean Red Cross, the cumulative number of separated families that applied for reunion since 1998 to May 2013 was 128,808. Of them, only 73,461 people remain alive today. For those longing to meet their family in the other half of the peninsula, the South Korean Red Cross started organizing inter-Korean reunions on behalf of the South in partnership with the North Korean Red Cross, officially starting from 2000. As a result of their efforts, 18 reunions have been made to date. The history of inter-Korean reunions is not long, considering that the Korean peninsula has been separated for more than 50 years. The first reunion was made under the name of “North and South Separated Families’ Home Visitors” in 1985 whereby 30 North Koreans and 35 South Koreans reunited briefly. Only after 15 years, in 2000, was the official inter-Korean reunion organized, reuniting 202 families. The reunions continued with the 19th event scheduled for September 2013, but was indefinitely postponed by the North, which marks the 18th reunion in 2010 as the last one to date. This leaves the two Koreas with 3 years void of reunions after the Yeonpyeong island attack in 2010.
One out of every thousand
It is not difficult to watch the heartwarming reunion event broadcasted live on t e l e v i s i o n , and come t o a hasty generalization that the majority of separated families are given the opportunity to reunite with their families. In reality, the chances of being selected to take part in the event are very low due to the complicated process of arranging the inter-Korean reunions. The Korean Red Cross is responsible for the entire process involved. For the 19th reunion that was scheduled this September for instance, the South and North Red Cross decided that the South would select 100 participants for the event. Joo Hee-jo (Chief, Public Relations, Korean Red Cross) explains that when an inter-Korean reunion is agreed to be held, a Commission for the Separated Families is first arranged. The commission’s job is to select the participants for the inter-Korean reunion. “The participants are chosen randomly by a computer program, but the commission determines the primary factors of determination,” Joo explains. “For the 19th reunion that was originally arranged for this September, the commission agreed to give priority to elders above the age of 90 whose direct family members were available for the reunion.” The criteria are given in order to give priority to those who are more desperate, but even so, the possibility of meeting one’s family remains low. The main reason for this low possibility is the imbalance between the number of separated families and the number of possible participants. Out of those who applied, only 500 people were chosen by the South Korean Red Cross as semi-candidates. “We decided to pick 5 times the number of final participants this year. Then 250 candidates were selected considering whether their families are alive in the North, after which the final 100 participants were selected,” says Joo. The probability of making through this process and being chosen as a semicandidate is very low. According to Joongang Ilbo , statistically, the probability of being selected as one of the 500 semicandidates is 0.7%. The probability of being selected as the final 100 to actually meet long-lost family is even lower : 0.1%. This calculates to approximately one in every thousand separated family members.
Time is running out
The high competition to be selected as a final candidate to reunite is certainly one of the biggest challenges of inter-Korean reunions. However, another issue equally significant remains looming ahead. “More than 80% of the survivors of separated families are over the age of 70,” Joo says. In other words, the inter-Korean reunion is a fight against time. The Korean War broke out more than 60 years ago, and this has inevitably left the separated families to age. Joo pinpoints precisely the aging of separated families as the biggest difficulty when trying to arrange an inter-Korean reunion. “There was news of an elderly man aged 91 who passed away 6 days prior to the inter-Korean reunion previously scheduled in September.” Joo added that these moments are the most heartbreaking moments of working at the Korean Red Cross. “It is estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 elders die every year,” Joo says. “If the current trend continues, it will take several hundred years to allow all separated families to reunite. But those who remain cannot wait for so long.” With time running short, another problem is the instability of the two Koreas’ relationship. Although the inter- Korean reunion is arranged by the North and South Red Cross, the conferences are still affected by international politics, as government personnel participate in the North and South Red Cross conferences. Joo explains that this inevitably means that the political relationship between the two Koreas affects the possibility of a successful implementation of inter-Korean reunion. “We do not have much time.” Joo argues that politics should not interfere in the successful hosting of inter-Korean reunions. Rather, Joo claims that “by holding regular conferences, the North and the South officials should maintain a fair relationship that allows annual reunions.” In such times of urgency, reaching to the root of the problem associated with the difficulty of hosting an inter-Korean reunion is necessary. Park Soon-sung (Prof., Dept. of North Korean Studies, Dongguk Univ.) explains that the root of the problem involves an inability to see the bigger picture. Park suggests that if North Korea assumes a peaceful relationship in the international field, the two Koreas will be able to maintain a negotiable relationship, and therefore successfully hold events that require their cooperation, such as the inter-Korean reunion.
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It is easy to neglect the importance of family when we are always surrounded by them. However, while most of us stay happily in our family’s arms, some of us have members of our family in the far, unreachable half of the peninsula. The importance of families should be realized, not only on the individual level, but also on the societal and national level. Only then will it be possible to help the separated families reunite with their families before it gets too late.