By Brian Lanciault
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
PYONGYANG, North Korea– North Korea has agreed to South Korea’s proposal to resume reuniting families that were separated during the Korean Civil War (1950-53). Observers take this as a sign of encouragement that the otherwise bitter and flaring relationship between North and South is beginning to cool down.
The reunions are expected to take place on September 19, during the elaborate Chuseok harvest festival, according to reports released on Sunday by KCNA, a major North Korean news agency.
North Korea set off months of unsettling tensions with a long-range rocket launch in December followed by an underground nuclear test in February. The North’s menacing rhetoric against the United States and South Korea hit its apex between March and April amid U.S.-South Korean military drills in the region, and a vote by the U.N. Security Council to impose even tougher sanctions on the Pyongyang regime, in hopes to quell the swelling tide of nuclear threats.
The KCNA reported that both North and the South, following an agreement to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Zone, will soon discuss the possibility of resuming cross-border tours at Mount Kumgang.
The Kaesong Industrial Zone, a massive complex, located in the North but shared by the two nations, has been closed since April. Kim Jong Un’s regime began blocking South Koreans from entering the manufacturing complex, which sits on the North’s side of the heavily fortified border and houses the operations of more than 120 South Korean companies. Pyongyang then removed the more than 50,000 North Koreans working in the zone’s factories, saying it was temporarily suspending activity in the area. The decision to halt operations surprised some observers, since Kaesong has long been considered an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang.
Mount Kumgang is a North Korean resort where a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in 2008 after allegedly walking into an off-limits area. The reunion will take place at the resort.
“The Kaesong Industrial Zone and the tours to Mt. Kumgang resort are valuable works common to the nation which should not be delayed as they are symbols of reconciliation, unity, reunification and prosperity,” the KCNA reported.
The tragedy of divided families dates to the 1950-1953 Korean War, when the Cold War’s division of the peninsula into two nations became a permanent state of affairs. Amid fighting, millions became refugees — either fleeing violence or fearing political repercussions from either side. In the winter of 1950, some 650,000 refugees left North Korea as U.N. forces retreated after a surprise Chinese offensive.
There is no direct contact between the two Koreas, but a few families in the South have managed to establish voice and written contact, albeit in secrecy, with their relatives in the North in recent years. Most such communications are a result of North Korea’s border with China, which has become easier to overcome, not to mention the prominence of illegal cell phones that have penetrated the otherwise insulated state.
The first family reunions took place following a landmark summit between the two Koreas in 2000. Since that time, 17,100 people representing 3,500 families have been reunited on more than 18 separate occasions.
The meetings are bittersweet, as the chances of any of the divided family members meeting again are slim. The last such reunion took place in 2010.
According to a report at the time, approximately 80,000 South Koreans registered to join one of the few reunions, but 40,000 people are believed to have since passed away or given up hope, according to the South’s Ministry of Unification. Figures from north of the demilitarized zone remain unknown.
For more information, please see:
BBC — North Korea Agrees to Family Reunions with South — 18 August 2013
Reuters — North Korea accepts South’s proposal to resume war-torn family reunions — 18 August 2013
Bloomberg — North Korea Agrees to Reunion Talks After Gaeseong Accord — 18 August 2013
Deutsche Welle — North Korea agrees to resumption of family reunions — 18 August 2013
CNN — North Korea agrees to family reunions with the South, report says — 18 August 2013