Mon, 21 Aug 2000

Separated Koreans experience sad journey back

SEOUL: It was too short a meeting after a long separation. Again the families had to say goodbye with broken hearts, calling out the names of their beloved kin with tears streaming down their wrinkled faces. The pain in their hearts must be immeasurable. They cannot know when, if ever, they will be able to meet again.

In a brief reunion that came after a painful division of half a century, the separated family members from North and South Korea shared intense moments of joy and sorrow in a four-day exchange of visits to Seoul and Pyongyang. They were happy, above all else, to embrace their long-missing kin who, until just a month or so ago, they did not know whether alive or dead at all.

Then they struggled to put together their dim memories of those chaotic hours of war that dispersed them and to remember the long years of unspeakable hardships that followed. At a loss as to how to make up for the lost time and how to bridge the broken ties, they wept together.

The world watched the tragedies of Koreans residing in the last remnant of the Cold War as they unfolded in a cautiously mounted political frame following the historic inter-Korean summit in June. They witnessed the tearful dramas of parents, husbands, wives and children groping for each other's faces in tears and reeling with a sense of guilt they were not to blame for. Aged parents lost words and collapsed. Children, who were no longer young, but growing old themselves, cried as their ailing parents didn't even recognize them. Few could control their overflowing emotions as one old wound after another got revealed.

Now, with all those displaced families back home with their hearts filled with fresh agonies and the curtain rung down on their heartrending dramas, it is the time for all the concerned parties to put aside their handkerchiefs and review the meaning of these tearful reunions.

The implications of this highly emotional event must be scrutinized with both "warm hearts and cold heads." This is necessary to find realistic methods, not the political calculations of bygone days, to end the sorrow of these people and the millions of other Koreans who fell victims to a severe ideological conflict and the territorial division.

In spite of its overwhelming significance, the latest exchange of visits benefited only a small number of separated families -- 100 each from both sides. In view of the fact that there are some 10 million people with their family members across the border, including seven million in the South and three million in the North, the concerned authorities in both Koreas must find ways to drastically expand the reunion program.

The proposed permanent meeting places on the border area is a practicable solution for both the political and the economic reasons.

It is the dearest wish of all the dispersed families at this time that the latest visits will not turn out to be an isolated political event symbolizing the benevolence of a particular leader. The past experience makes this apprehension reasonable. The Red Cross societies of the two Koreas began to negotiate for family reunions in 1971. A single exchange of 50 families from each side materialized in 1985 from these negotiations.

These Red Cross talks, however, set out a clear agenda that is worthy of note at this juncture. They agreed that the family reunions would be pursued through the procedure of locating the whereabouts of divided families, allowing them to exchange correspondence, and then effecting their reunions through mutual visits and resolving the "humanitarian issues" arising in the process.

At this crucial stage of starting to build a lasting peace and unity on the Korean Peninsula, the leaders in Seoul and Pyongyang are urged to expedite their efforts to resolve the agonies of separated families from the pure humanitarian viewpoints.

This is also vital to eliminate the differences of culture and increase mutual understanding on both sides. Unification cannot be achieved overnight, but preparations must be made, not only in the economic and military areas, but in all sectors of society.

-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network