KTV blog - KEI
by Paolo Affatato
Pyongyang (Agenzia Fides) - The last meeting took place in 2018. In this experience that politics defines as "family reunion" between people divided by the border between North Korea and South Korea, there are the tears, the embraces, the sufferings and the joys of brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, children and parents that the "bamboo curtain" - the border that crosses the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel - has divided since 1953. Since 2018, five years of silence. And the recent proposal for a new meeting, launched in September 2022 by the Seoul government, fell on deaf ears. Today, many Koreans, both South and North, hope that on the 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 25, 1953, a reunion between divided families can once again be envisaged.
Family reunifications, hour-long meetings promoted by the governments of North and South Korea, are a highly emotional humanitarian issue. They concern people who are now elderly, all over 80, who long to see their loved ones, at least one last time, before they die.
The painful family rifts date back to the events of 1945, when the Korean peninsula was divided. A few years later, in 1950, the Korean War broke out and millions of Korean citizens fled from the North to the South in search of freedom and dignity.
Perhaps they never thought that they would never see and kiss their loved ones again.
Faced with the need expressed on both sides of the border, the Korean Red Cross took the initiative, in 1971, to organize a search campaign for members of separated families. Since then, many people have expressed the wish to know the possible existence of their living relatives, of whom they had no news, in order to talk to each other and find each other.
In 1983, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the program "Finding Dispersed Families" was created and broadcast by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) between June and November 1983. This television program aimed to reunite Korean families separated by the partition of the peninsula. First filmed at KBS headquarters in Seoul, it quickly spread to the whole country due to its great success. The KBS channel was inundated with a large number of requests to appear on the show, which aired for 453 hours and 45 minutes over 138 days. 53,000 people took part in the show and more than 10,000 families found a relative on the other side of the border. The show received international acclaim and has been on UNESCO's Memory of the World register since 2015.
The impact it had on the Korean people was profound. For the first time mass media were used to contribute to the post-war reunification process, and the show proved crucial for communication between North and South Korea: for the government in Seoul, the show was an opportunity to re-establish contacts and reopen talks with the North for family reunification meetings, to be held in the "demilitarized zone", the strip of land that separates the two nations.
The result is a chain of gatherings of divided families. The Red Cross succeeded in organizing, with the agreement of the two governments, an exchange of home visits between artists from Seoul and Pyongyang in September 1985. The issue remained on the political agenda, even if the governments' approach was different: the North Korean government did not separate it from political and diplomatic issues, while in the South, efforts were made to keep these meetings outside of political issues, presenting them only as humanitarian and social initiatives.
A turning point came in 2000 when, with the launch of the so-called "sunshine policy" - the policy of thawing and mutual rapprochement, inaugurated by the meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il - the first official family reunion took place, immediately after the inter-Korean summit in August of the same year. Another 20 meetings followed almost every year. In 2009, the Seoul government passed a specific law to promote the reunification of divided families. At the same time, the Unification Ministry and the Korean Red Cross launched an "integrated information system for separated families", an online platform created with the aim of helping separated families to meet and exchange information. The process seemed consolidated. Associations such as the Inter-Korea Separated Family Association or the Korean Red Cross maintained open channels and also organized virtual meetings, allowing family members to exchange letters, make video calls or even, more rarely, to organize family reunions in third countries, through Chinese intermediaries.
The last material meeting between relatives took place from August 20 to 26, 2018, just after the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjon. The South Koreans who benefited from this meeting - were 89 from the South, while 83 came from the North - were drawn by lot: the oldest was 101 years old.
Since then, with the tightening of bilateral relations, family reunions have also ceased.
After several years, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se tried to revive the issue in September 2022, declaring that "the South and the North have to face the painful aspects of reality. We must solve this problem before the term 'separated families' disappears", he said, calling for "rapid measures". Two days before Chuseok, the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in both Koreas, Kwon said South Korea hoped officials from the two Koreas "can meet as soon as possible" for a frank discussion on the issue. This question is part of a larger framework: since taking office in May 2022, the South Korean government, led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, has offered a massive support plan for the North in exchange for denuclearization.
The Pyongyang government responded that further meetings were not possible "until the United States abandons its hostile policies towards the North". Border closures remain confirmed also due to the pandemic, which has been cited as an obstacle to the resumption of family reunions, which remain a "broken dream".
Korean poet Kim Tong-hwan (1091-1958) spoke of the "dream" of Korean families in a poignant poem titled "When the Frozen River Thaws". It refers to the Han River which, in the last part of its course before flowing into the Yellow Sea, marks the border between South Korea and North Korea. The Han River is a symbol of lost unity: it is formed by the confluence of the Namhan River (coming from the south) and the Bukhan River, which originates on the slopes of Mount Geumgang, in North Korea. The two branches join in Gyeonggi-do Province, and from there the stream is called the Han River.
"When the frozen river thaws, a ferry boat will come.
My lover must have got aboard the boat.
Tho' he is not available, his letter will come.
Today I was waiting at the riverside only to fail.
When my lover comes, my sorrow will fade away.
In the freezing winter, the frozen river too
Will thaw by itself needless to consider my mind.
Today I was waiting at the riverside only to fail".
(Agenzia Fides, 22/7/2023)
Divided Families Foundation