What Family Reunions Mean for N.Koreans

      October 13, 2009 09:19

      North Koreans reach out of a bus window to grab the hands of South Korean family members before leaving the family reunion center in Mt. Kumgang on Oct. 1. /Yonhap

      In North Korea, it is a great privilege to take part in reunions with family members in South Korea, and families are carefully vetted for ideological soundness before they can be considered.

      One defector who worked for the North Korean intelligence apparatus said the family reunions are overseen by the Unification Bureau of the Workers' Party, which receives applications from families seeking to participate. The State Security Department and Ministry of Public Security then conduct background searches of individual members.

      The criteria for selection are political value and propaganda potential. South Korean prisoners of war and citizens who were abducted by the North are picked for their political value. North Korea believes that South Korean demands for the release of all POWs and abductees can be appeased if such people are included.

      North Koreans who are successful or have no record of mistreatment by the regime are considered for their propaganda potential, as they are more likely to praise the leadership when they meet their family from the South.

      Once selected, North Koreans go through between one and three months of ideological education at the Unification Bureau. In the early days of the family reunions, the state paid all expenses for the participants, including the clothes they wore. But now they must cover their own expenses. Following the reunions, people can keep their gifts and cash can be deposited in North Korean banks, with family members allowed to withdraw US$100 a month.

      The biggest problems are faced by those who listed their missing kin as "killed in action" during the Korean War. Family members of those killed in action are guaranteed success in North Korean society, but if they receive applications for reunions from family members in South Korea who were considered dead, North Koreans face punishment for forging their background information. When such offenses are discovered, North Koreans face removal from their positions in society and are barred from meeting their South Korean family.

      Former North Korean football coach Yoon Myong-chan ended up defecting to South Korea because this happened to him. He had registered his father as killed in action during the Korean war. But once it was learned that his father was still alive, Yoon was accused of forging his background information and had no choice but to leave the country. A North Korean found guilty of such offenses could end up being sent to a labor camp.

      The family reunions have led to the coining of a new term in North Korea, the "Mt. Halla stem," which refers to the mountain in South Korea's Jeju Island. The cream of the crop in North Korean society come from the so-called "Mt. Baekdu stem," or those who fought as partisan guerillas or as soldiers in the Korean War. The "Mt. Fuji stem" refers to North Koreans who came from Japan and have grown wealthy due to money transferred by family there.

      North Koreans with family who went to South Korea during the Korean War used to be despised in the North, but they have been reevaluated since the reunions started. Due to Japan's prolonged sanctions against North Korea, the Mt. Fuji stem has mostly collapsed, but North Koreans with family members in South Korea have become wealthier.

      North Koreans who took part in reunions fall under the watchful eye of security agencies to monitor the possibility of secret reunions in China. The North Korean regime views the rise of a new class of people who have become wealthy due to money received from family in South Korea as a threat to its very existence. But poor security agents are more interested in getting a share of the hard currency being sent from the South and often turn a blind eye to unauthorized reunions if they are bribed.

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