Lee Min-kwan, who turns 60 this year, lived all his life in the belief that his father had died during the 1950-53 Korean War. When Lee was 100 days old, his father gave him his name and joined the South Korean military and lost contact. But about 10 days ago, Lee learned that his father, now 90, was living in North Korea and wished to see him. The two were reunited in Mt. Kumgang on Saturday. Four of the 97 participants from North Korea at the event were South Korean soldiers during the war.
Their names can be found in South Korean military records, but they were not included in the list of 500 South Korean prisoners of war Seoul presumes are still alive in North Korea.
The latest round of family reunions involve 97 people from North Korea who met their South Korean families on Saturday and Sunday, while another 100 from the South will be reunited with their North Korean families from Wednesday until Friday. Out of around 41,900 South Korean soldiers who were missing in action, the government classified 13,800 of them as killed in action. Some families in the South have set up memorial altars for them to honor their deaths in annual ceremonies, believing their government.
Those men were brave soldiers who answered the call of their nation in times of trouble. The country was built on the sacrifices of such people. It would have been the duty of the South Korean government to try its best to determine whether they were dead or alive. The four veterans who showed up at the latest reunions made many in South Korea blush with shame.
North and South Korea are discussing whether to expand the family reunions. Since 2000, 18 family reunions have been held bringing together only 3,500 people with their long-lost families. Out of 83,000 people in the South who have applied for family reunions, 76 percent are over 70. In exchange for boosting the number of reunions, North Korea is demanding 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer. It is infuriating to see North Korea trying to profit from the pain of the separated families, but something has to be done.
The South Korean government must demand that North Korea confirm the status of South Korean POWs, abductees and members of separated families and allow them to communicate and hold regular reunions. If needed, the two sides should consider the option of paying for the release of South Koreans held in the North by setting a fixed price for each one, on the model of West Germany's "Freikauf" of people in East Germany.