On Tuesday, October 20, dozens of families divided by the most heavily armed border in the world gathered at the Mount Kumgang Resort in North Korea for three emotional days of reunion; some 250 South Koreans met with about 140 North Korean relatives. A second round of reunions were held from Sunday until Monday, with 250 South Koreans reuniting with about 190 North Korean family members.
This reunion was only the third of its kind since the families were first divided after the Korean War that began in 1950. For most of the participants, it was the first time they had seen each other in over 60 years. Many families were divided when soldiers who had fought on one side during the war were left stranded after the armistice was signed and the demilitarized zone was set. There was no chance in the aftermath of chaos for soldiers to return to their homes or refugees who had become separated from their families to reunite.
Since then, citizens on either side of the border have been restricted from seeing each other or even from sending letters or emails. Several participants in the recent reunion and others who have yet to attend a reunion remarked that they had no way of knowing whether their mother, father, brother, sister, husband, or wife was still alive.
The event, like its predecessors, was a highly publicized and politicized affair, teeming with reporters and cameramen. The North Korean participants were reportedly compelled to repeat official propaganda, telling their South Korean kin that they had “happy” and “worthwhile” lives under the North Korean government. Meanwhile, North Korean agents stood by and monitored the conversations.
South Korea has been pushing for bigger, more frequent, and longer reunions for a while, but North Korea has only grudgingly agreed to a couple and has even cancelled or delayed reunions on occasion. This has led some analysts to say that Pyongyang is using the desire for reunions as leverage during its negotiations with South Korea.
The odds for being selected to go on one of these rare reunions are heartbreaking. Over 65,000 people are currently on the South Korean waitlist for a spot at one of the reunions. Many of the participants are in their 70s to 90s, and given their age and infrequent nature of the reunions, it is unlikely they will live long enough to see their loved ones again. Almost half of the 130,400 people who applied to go on a reunion since the program began at the North-South summit in 2000 have since died without ever going on a reunion. South Korea’s selection process depends on a lottery system, giving more preference to elderly applicants, while North Korea is purported to operate on a system of loyalty to the government.
These reunions are so emotionally taxing on participants because many leave knowing it will likely be the last time they see their family members. An ABC News article reports that one elderly North Korean man named Lee Dong-Wook was heard telling his 98-year-old father Lee Suk-ju: “Father, please live until the age of 130. I’ll live till the age of 100.”