North and South Korea Agree to Family Reunions in October

Decades of separation, but never once did they lose hope.

Thousands of Korean families have been torn apart for more than six decades since the Korean war. Although there have been numerous attempts at holding reunions, cooperation between the two sister countries was difficult.

South Korean Cho Il Woong, 81, shows his family photo in North Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

But for the second time in five years, there is one more chance for another heartbreaking, tearful reunion.

After the recent artillery fights across the border due to the land mine explosions that wounded two South Korean soldiers last month, the North and South have negotiated to ease tensions between the neighboring countries. The result is an agreement to hold a reunion for 100 individuals from each country from October 20th to 26th at Mount Kumgang, a resort located on the North’s east coast.  

North Korean delegate, Park Yong-il, and South Korean delegate, Lee Duk-haeng, meets at Panmunjom for talks over family reunion (NY Times)

More than 130,000 South Koreans have registered to the government since 1988 for a hopeful reunion, but only 66,000 are believed to be alive today—more than half are in their 80s and 90s. The majority had already passed away without ever having a chance to hear from their estranged family members across the border.

Unfortunately, the process of being selected to participate in the reunion is based on luck; not all 66,000 can participate in the reunion. On September 15, the South will offer a list of 250 names while the North will offer 200 in order to check whether the people are still alive. Then finally, 500 individuals, randomly chosen by a computer, will be reduced to 200 after going through a series of interviews and medical exams. Then, the final 100 participants will be selected based on the likelihood of finding a surviving family member from the North.

Often being the first or last time the families will ever meet, the encounters are brief and emotional.

North Korean Kim Ho-Sook, right, 83, meets her South Korean brother Kim Ho-Dae in 60 years (CNN News)
North Korean Kim Ho-Sook, right, 83, meets her South Korean brother Kim Ho-Dae in 60 years (CNN News)
In 2014 South Korean Park Yang-gon reunites with his North Korean brother Park Yang-su (News1/Reuters)

In the last reunion on February 2014, a total of 200 North and South Korean families met over a period of six days. Jang Chun, one of the 100 South Koreans who had made his trip all the way to Mount Kumgang, met his brother, Jang Hwa Chun, and younger sister, Jang Keum Soon, who were once only children in the North.

In 2014, Jang Chun reunited with his siblings from North Korea
In 2014, Jang Chun reunited with his siblings from North Korea (CNN News)
Jang Chun's letter containing photos of his family in North Korea through the Redcross (CNN News)
Jang Chun’s letter containing photos of his family in North Korea through the Redcross (CNN News)

As a military conscript during the Korean war, Jang was taken prisoner by the United Nations in South Korea, leaving his family in the North.

Then five years ago, Jang received a letter from the Red Cross, containing a black-and-white photo of his brother at a wedding.

“It was shocking,” Jang said. “I didn’t even know they were alive, although I had hoped they were. After reading the letter, I started crying, I was filled with both joy and sorrow” (CNN News).

“Every time a train passes by, I thought (about you), I missed you, older brother,” Jang Keum Soon, sobbing and hugging, told Jang Chun during the reunion.

Jang Chun’s son also promised his North Korean aunt and uncle whom he met for the first time: “I will drive a train and come here. I am a locomotive engineer so I will drive the train and promise to come back. Until then, please stay healthy and live a long life.”

South Korean members were seen bringing small gifts for their families who’d have to return back to North; the most popular gifts were Choco Pies and painkillers (YTN News).

North Korean families must go back (BBC News)

Although hopes are high, there are still a number of risks. There were times when North Korea would cancel the reunions at the last minute. And currently, there is also the possibility of a long-range missile launch by North Korea under the excuse of celebrating the 70th year anniversary of founding Kim Jung Un’s ruling Worker’s Party in mid-October.

According to the Yonhap News, Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said, “If North Korea launches a long-range rocket, the international community could impose sanctions against the North, which will likely lead Pyongyang to revoke the family reunions in retaliation.”

Until then, there is little that can be done except to hope for the families’ fateful reunion.

– Sammie Kim (’18)

Featured Image: CNN

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