Korean Family Reunions in Crisis

Tense relations between North and South Korea have forced separated families to travel to a third country to see long-lost relatives.
2009-03-20
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South Korean soldiers on top of an armored vehicle take part in a military drill in Pocheon, 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) northeast of Seoul on Feb. 17, 2009.
South Korean soldiers on top of an armored vehicle take part in a military drill in Pocheon, 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) northeast of Seoul on Feb. 17, 2009.
AFP/Won Dai-Yeon

SEOULFamilies separated by the division of North and South Korea at the end of the Korean War (1950-53) are seeing their hopes of reunion dashed as relations between the two Koreas take a turn for the worst, with many trying to meet up with loved ones in China, defectors and aid workers said.

"The South Korean Red Cross receives several calls every day from citizens complaining that family reunions are no longer happening, and that the situation of inter-Korean relations seems to be on an endless downward slope," an official at the organization's Seoul headquarters said.

Reunions, formerly arranged via aid agencies directly between families split between North and South, are increasingly brokered by North Korean defectors, although other Koreans also reported arranging them.

Kim Cheol, a Chinese national of Korean descent living in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, said he successfully organized a reunion for a North Korean and his elder brother in the South.

Rented accommodation

"After crossing the border, North Korean members of separated families spend 10 to 20 days in China with their South Korean relatives," Kim Cheol said.

"They generally stay in a hotel or a house rented by the South Koreans," said Kim, whose name is an alias to protect his identity.

"They talk a lot, eat plenty, exchange contact information, receive money from their South Korean relatives and then return to North Korea carrying five or six heavy pieces of luggage filled with presents," he said.

Meanwhile, Shim Jeong-Sook, a North Korean defector currently living in South Korea, managed to track down the long-lost younger brother of a South Korean man in his 80s who had been separated from him since the war ended.

Shim said the North Korean came all the way to China to meet his brother, who gave him U.S.$10,000 to take back home to help make his life in the North a bit more bearable.

In both Koreas, and especially in the South, Confucian family values mean that an elder brother still feels a sense of responsibility, even if he hasn’t seen younger siblings for over half a century and hasn’t had an opportunity to look after them for all that time.

Elderly 'most worried'

The formalities surrounding such a reunion can be lengthy, as South Koreans ask for hair, nail, or blood samples for DNA testing from North Koreans claiming to be relatives, in the wake of a number of highly publicized and costly swindles.

Sometimes, for a U.S.$1,000 bribe, North Korean border guards will allow one member of a separated family to cross the border into China for a brief reunion with South Korean relatives. A cheaper alternative to a family reunion is a tape recording of relatives living in the North.

The South Korean Red Cross official said the majority of phone calls come from elderly South Koreans.

"The already senior members of separated families are aging fast," he said. "The older they get, the more concerned they grow about the fate of inter-Korean family reunions."

Back in the days of warmer ties between Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea would facilitate family reunion visits to Mount Kumgang, where it built a hotel facility to aid such meetings.

Original reporting in Korean by Jung Young. Korean service director: Francis Huh. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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