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Hither and Yon

Joy and heartache of cynical family reunions in divided Korea

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
SEOUL — Another round of visits for South Koreans to see their long-lost relatives in North Korea brings both hope and sadness.
Anyone selected for a family visit has to know, after seeing a brother, sister, cousin or some other relative who may be hardly remembered, that it’s all over.
There will never be another chance to meet this person. Nor will there be phone calls, postcards, emails, none of the usual means of communication. In parting after three days, goodbye really means goodbye. An appropriate farewell might be, “See you in another life.”
The sadness goes much deeper than that. It encompasses the tens of thousands who apply to go to the North for those final meetings and never know the excitement of hearing their name selected in the lottery run by the South Korean Red Cross.
When the family visits began after the June 2000 summit between the late Kim Dae-Jung and the late Kim Jong-Il, the feeling was these would be regular affairs, maybe once a month. Over the intervening 15 years and four months, there have been just 20 rounds of family visits, including the ones this week. North Korea has turned the program on and off like a spigot. The current round is the first since February of last year. That reunion, the 20th, was the first in nearly four years.
As much as any other aspect of North Korean policy, the exploitation of family visits shows the inhumanity of a regime that over the years has consigned millions to prison camps where most are left to die. It is not just that the visits are staged whenever North Korea feels it’s time to make some moves for reconciliation. It’s that the whole experience of waiting and longing to see loved ones is so excruciating for thousands who know, if they don’t go soon, they will never go.
More than 130,000 South Koreans expressed an interest in seeing their relatives in North Korea after Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il enshrined family visits in the communique with which they ended their summit.
Nearly half have passed away. Those 130,000 in turn were all that remained alive in the South among the millions of families divided by the war.
Family visits might not be happening at all had North Korea not won a remarkable concession from the South. In the first few rounds of family visits, North Koreans came to Seoul, where they stayed in a luxury hotel and sometimes were taken on a quick tour of the city when not seeing their relatives. The problem was, they returned to North Korea with rather dangerous accounts of the wonders of modern Seoul.
As far as North Korean authorities were concerned, that had to stop. They insisted on holding all reunions within the tourist zone of Mount Geumgang, inside North Korea, where the hotel rooms are wired to record conversations and it’s easy to monitor everyone, including the South Korean media filing pool reports. No, the foreign media can’t go at all.
Sure of knowing everything that’s going on, the North Koreans have no problem feeding the right lines to those whom they’ve selected to see their relatives from the South.
Meetings begin with praise for Kim Jong-Un and everything about life in the North. If listening devices are not hearing all that’s said, minders are present. In those few moments when the minders don’t seem to be listening, North Koreans are still unwilling to say anything at all negative about the lives they’ve been leading since the Korean War, much less risk what’s left of their lives by hinting at any unhappiness with the system. As in all the rhetoric we hear from Pyongyang, family visits are another chance to spread the word on behalf of the regime.
Those who’ve been on these visits say many of the North Koreans selected to see their relatives from the South have dedicated themselves to working faithfully for the government or the party. That may not be true in all cases, but no way is the North Korean Red Cross going to pick someone with a dubious record to go to Mount Geumgang for a reunion. Adding to the suspect nature of the show, South Korea pays the bills even if the North Koreans are trained to thank Kim Jong-Un for making it all happen.
None of which is to suggest that family visits are a total waste of time. The thrill of seeing someone after 65 years’ separation is infectious. These people may never see one another again, but at least they have the comfort of knowing their loved ones are alive. That’s a moment that no one can deny even while decrying the cynicism of a regime that twists family reunions into another tool to promote its policies.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com
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