North and South Korea have agreed to hold reunions of families separated by the Korea War at Mt. Kumgang on Sep. 25-30, two years after they came to a halt as relations soured.
Some 100 people from each side will get to meet their family members, while another 40 people from each side will get to talks to relatives by video link on Oct. 22-23. The video reunions stopped in 2007.
The resumption of family reunions is clearly a milestone in inter-Korean relations, but that is not enough to ease the pain of the separated families. From 2000 to 2010, around 1,900 families from both sides were able to see each other again, albeit briefly, for the first time since the end of the Korean War. Around 128,800 people from the South have applied for family reunions, but 56,000 have died already.
At the present rate of reunions of 100 people from each side at a time, it would take 720 years for all of them to reunite briefly with their loved ones in North Korea. But 80 percent of those who applied for family reunions are over 70 years old. Unless the two Koreas are able to find a fundamental solution, the majority will die without ever seeing their loved ones again.
North and South Korea agreed last Friday to find a "fundamental solution" to the family reunions. Seoul has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to take the matter more seriously, including making the reunions a regular event. But North Korea apparently is no more enthusiastic than it has ever been. It only ever considered the reunions a bargaining chip in trying to extract concessions from South Korea, rather than a humanitarian issue.
North Korean officials apparently gave a none-too-subtle hint in the latest talks that they need help to deal with the destruction caused by monsoon rains this summer.
The government must persuade North Korea to change that perception. This would require full-fledged talks about the issue between ranking officials from both sides.
The former West Germany made official payments to East Germany when it rescued political prisoners from the East. Seoul also needs to discuss the issue of South Korean prisoners of war still held in North Korea when it discusses the family reunions. Time is running out for the people who have not been able to see their loved ones for 60 years.