Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Korean families reunite temporarily

SEOUL: In Seoul and Pyongyang on Tuesday, there were temporary reunions of families dispersed before and during the 1950-1953 Korean War. The number of the participating families was very limited, but the scenes were touching enough for many Koreans to rivet their eyes on their televised images.

The reunions are certainly a reminder of the agony and suffering brought about by the territorial division. At the same time, it signified the beginning of a process to heal the scars left by the war and by the separation of the nation.

On Tuesday was Liberation Day, which marks Korea's liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Seoul has declared this week a week of reconciliation. The exchange visits of separated families that are taking place at this time are very propitious. This peaceful development contrasts with boisterous incidents that characterized the inter-Korean relations around Liberation Day in past years.

In the past, North Korea used to incite "pro-unification" activists in the South by inviting them to join in what it called a unification festival at the border village of Panmunjom. Seoul authorities banned the activists from participating in the event as they viewed it as part of the North's propaganda tactics designed to propagate such demands as the withdrawal of U.S. forces stationed in the South. Seoul's streets were often filled with tear gas as police clashed with the activists vainly trying to march to Panmunjom.

Both Koreas merit praise for initiating the humanitarian project of allowing long-separated relatives to meet. The people now visiting Seoul and Pyongyang for the reunions deserve our hearty congratulations. However, we should not forget the pain of hundreds of thousands of others who are not lucky enough to be on the visits. Just 100 people from each side have been selected for the temporary reunions. In South Korea, the 100 people have been chosen from a computer lottery, out of nearly 77,000 applicants. The probability of winning the lottery was 0.13 percent.

It would be unfortunate if the dispersed families continue to play the probability game in order to meet their relatives. Authorities in Seoul and Pyongyang should expeditiously address the situation.

In this context, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has indicated that he is ready to permit more such reunions. He recently told visiting South Korean media executives that there would be more reunions next month and in October. Kim also said that by next year, he would let separated family members from the South to visit their hometowns.

Although the North Korean leader's statement is welcome, his suggestions can hardly satisfy the ardent wishes of hundreds of thousands of families dispersed in the South and in the North. The two Koreas ought to try to establish a formal and permanent mechanism for expediting the reunions. Solutions would be simple. First, the dispersed families should be allowed to confirm whether their relatives are still alive. In the next stage, they could exchange letters and converse over phones.

After that, they should be able to visit each other freely. Politics aside, there is no reason for each side to oppose these measures. Successful implementation of these steps would lead to a state where dispersed families could live together depending on their wishes.

Given the advanced ages of the first-generation population of separated family members, policymakers handling the reunion issue should feel a sense of urgency. Those who settled in the South after fleeing the North during the Korean War are mostly over 60. Ten percent of them are older than 79.

This is not the first time the two Koreas exchanged visits of separated families. They did it in 1985, allowing 50 people from each side to visit Seoul and Pyongyang. What happened next? It was discontinued for 15 years, mainly for political reasons. Hopefully, the two Koreas have learned a lesson from this experience. If they are genuinely interested in promoting the welfare of dispersed families, they will not maneuver for selfish political gains.

Relations between the two Koreas have warmed up significantly since the historic summit between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in mid-June. This ambience will certainly help the two sides in resolving the problem of separated families. When talking with South Korean media executives, the North Korean leader called for "hard-headed rationality" in dealing with the issue. He is surely right. We hope that he will place as much emphasis on warm-heartedness.

-- The Korea Herald / Asia News Network