N.Korea Mustn't Use Family Reunions as a Bargaining Chip

      August 31, 2015 13:24

      Some 1.23 million Koreans were separated from their families on either side of the border following the 1950-53 Korean War. It is a duty to ensure that these people are reunited with their loved ones, but North Korea has always used the prospect of reunions as a bargaining chip to exact more aid and money from South Korea.

      The Red Cross societies of the two Koreas agreed Saturday to hold talks on Sept. 7 to discuss the next round of family reunions. The last reunions took place in February last year, when 170 people met for the first time since the Korean War.

      There have been 19 reunions since the first round in 2000. Only around 12,000 separated family members have so far been reunited with their long-lost brothers, sisters and parents so far, just one percent of the first generation of separated families and 10 percent of the 120,000 people who have applied for reunions.

      However, around 60,000 of those who applied have died of old age and the remaining ones are mostly in their 80s. Pretty soon, none of the first generation will be alive. It would be a tragedy if they die without having a chance to meet their long-lost relatives. 

      But it would be asking too much to expect North Korea to have any sense of guilt about using the reunions as a bargaining chip. In September 2013, North Korea unilaterally called off scheduled reunions a month before the planned date to protest against annual U.S.-South Korean military drills. The North probably meant to cancel them off from the onset.

      And when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, it called off family reunions after South Korea refused to provide any more fertilizer and rice aid. The North halted family reunions again after it fired a long-range missile into the East Sea last year. Moreover, video-conferencing reunions, which began in 2005, ended two years after they started because the North did not feel like having them any more.

      East Germany allowed limited contacts or phone calls between millions of separated families for decades before reunification. That is how things should be. We can no longer leave the matter in North Korea's hands. 

      South Korea has agreed to switch off its propaganda broadcasts along the heavily armed border as long as North Korea does not resort to provocations or other irregular activities. The latest standoff revealed just how afraid North Korea is of the propaganda broadcasts. If the North tries to use the reunions as a bargaining chip again, Seoul needs to make it pay a price. This is not an easy decision. But as long as North Korea's weak point is known, a solution can be found.

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