Korean family reunions become a pawn in Cold War politics

Pyongyang postpones planned meeting of aging family members from North and South Korea

North Koreans on a bus and their South Korean relatives, separated since the Korean War, bid farewell after a brief family reunion Nov. 1, 2010, in Mount Kumgang, North Korea.
Kim Ho-Young-Korea/Pool/Getty Images

On Sept. 19, the lunar thanksgiving, Chuseok, Koreans across the peninsula enjoyed songpyeon, tender rice cakes redolent of pine. Hwang Deok-yong, 84, spent Chuseok counting down the days -- just six to go -- until he would finally have the chance to see his two living siblings, after more than half a century.

So the announcement from Pyongyang on Sept. 21 came as a cruel shock: The reunions would be postponed indefinitely. The reasons given were numerous but vague -- a generic criticism of South Korea's conservative politics and a more pointed denunciation of the investigation of Lee Seok-ki, a leftist legislator accused of plotting a rebellion against the South in case of war with the North.

"I heard the supposed reasons (for canceling) on TV, but there's no real reason," Hwang says. "Each side thinks it's right, and they play games."

Until Saturday, it appeared that the Koreas had resumed a tentative détente, offering aging families a brief embrace. Hwang had planned to travel Sept. 24 from his home in Pyeongtaek, 90 minutes south of Seoul, to Mount Kumgang in North Korea.

He was among the 95 South Koreans whose applications had been approved to cross the DMZ to meet or reunite with relatives on the other side starting Wednesday. (He applied numerous times before.) One hundred North Koreans were awaiting the same opportunity.

In the chaos and violence of the Korean War, Hwang and thousands of others were cleaved from family in the North. Hwang ended up in the South, with no way home across the Cold War's most intractable boundary.

"I'm from North Korea, but I've been in the South 60-something years. I say that I am South Korean, but I don't know where my soul is."

The octogenarian has "lived a full life," working, marrying and raising one son and four daughters on the southern side of the 1953 cease-fire line. Yet, he says, part of him has remained rootless and incomplete.

There's no real reason. Each side thinks it’s right, and they play games.

"The worst thing that happened to us is the Korean War -- what the Americans did to us," he says, of the three-year conflict that left some 3 million Koreans (from the North and South), 600,000 Chinese and nearly 37,000 Americans dead.

Historians generally agree that the Korean War was a product of territorial wrangling among the U.S., China and the Soviet Union, but South Koreans disagree on the conflict's legacy; the official North Korean position casts the U.S. as Japan's imperial successor in the region. According to Hwang, U.S. policy should be distinguished from the ordinary Americans he has worked alongside at Pyeongtaek's U.S. naval base, itself a legacy of the Korean War.

On 18 occasions since 1972, North and South Korea have held cross-border family meetings -- authorized and arranged by the two governments -- for thousands of people, always on North Korean soil. The encounters have fulfilled many a last wish: to hold an elderly parent, child or sibling not seen since childhood.

This year, with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on July 27 (no peace treaty was ever signed), nearly all those slated to attend were over 80. In a press release responding to the postponement, South Korea's Ministry of Unification reported the death of one prospective attendee.

Images and footage of past family reunions broadcast from the world's most insular nation testify to the depth of emotions spurred by these uniquely unscripted moments, humanizing the trauma of national division for Koreans born long after the civil war.

"The younger generation of Koreans has no identification with this issue, and that's a very worrying concern," said Stephen Noerper, senior vice president of the Korea Society. "The North Koreans, from their perspective, are very, very distant cousins."

Both sides are, in principle, committed to reunification, though it remains to be seen what strategy South Korean President Park Geun-hye, elected last year, will pursue. Her predecessor Lee Myung-bak categorically rejected the pro-engagement Sunshine Policy begun by Kim Dae-jung in 1998. This policy of deepened social and economic ties continues to resonate with more liberal South Koreans even after a corruption scandal that later tainted Kim and his two-Korea summit of 2000, accomplished through massive cash transfers from South to North.

The younger generation of Koreans has no identification with this issue, and that’s a very worrying concern.

Pyongyang's announcement underscores the fragility of Korean rapprochement after tensions in the spring. In March, the U.S. flew stealth bombers over the peninsula and ran joint military drills with the South in response to continued nuclear threats. In April, despite suffering U.N. economic sanctions, Pyongyang cut off access to the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where 123 South Korean clothing and electronics factories employ North Korean workers. Reduced production resumed on September 16.

The reunions decision also casts doubt on the North's desire for economic engagement. Leader Kim Jong Un had been promoting commerce in the Rason industrial zone, which will soon see a Chinese automobile plant, as well as the lavish Masik Pass ski resort -- perhaps a competitive nod to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (In 1988, North Korea boycotted the Summer Olympics in Seoul.) Pyongyang hosted an all-Asia sports competition last week, even allowing the South Korean anthem to play.

It is unclear whether the two Koreas will follow through with a November conference on "comfort women," the thousands of sex slaves used by the Japanese military during World War II. Although by U.N. accounts, North Korea is guilty of its own human-rights violations, it has supported surviving comfort women's calls for a formal apology, accurate historical education and symbolic and monetary reparations from Tokyo. Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unlikely to heed such demands, but the conference would nonetheless have symbolic value, since the suffering of the colonial period is shared by Koreans on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Like the families who had planned to meet this week at a hotel overlooking the waterfalls and rocky crags of Mount Kumgang, Korean comfort women hail from a time when Korea was occupied but united.  That generation -- Hwang Deok-yong's -- has little time left to heal its wounds, let alone ensure future remembrance.

"I don't know how long I'll be around," Hwang says. "We should've reunited when we were young, but we didn't get that chance."

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