Some 300 Koreans have met at North Korea's Mt. Geumgang Resort during a three-day reunion. Seoul would like to regularize the reunions but Pyongyang's price is very high.
Pyongyang has hinted it will agree to more reunions only if South Korea provides huge supplies of food and aid
Last month, 72-year-old Jang Gi Hwa received a phone call at his home in California. He was told that his eldest sister, Yoing-ae, who vanished during the Korean War, was alive in North Korea. He was also told she would be allowed to meet him at the upcoming intra-Korean family reunions. He Jang immediately booked a flight to Seoul.
Despite negotiations it is unclear whether North and South Korea will ever be reunified
When Jang arrived at the reunion venue, North Korea's Mount Geumgang Resort, he stood face to face with the sister he thought he had lost six decades ago.
He said that at first, he didn't recognize her because her face had changed a lot. He only knew it was Young-ae when he saw her name tag and when she started talking he was sure it was her. They hugged one another and cried a lot.
Many subjects not mentioned out of fear for safety
Jang flipped through photos from the reunion on his digital camera and stopped at a shot of his sister wearing a traditional Korean gown with a badge featuring pictures of North Korea’s rulers pinned to it.
Jang explained that although there were many things he wanted to ask his sister and that he wanted to tell her about life outside of North Korea, he couldn't – he was afraid for her safety.
Many analysts say that Pyongyang uses its citizens during these reunions as a means to extract money from South Korea.
Tension has been high between Seoul and Pyongyang since the Cheonan warship was sunk in March
This latest round of reunions came after tension between the two Koreas had hit a boiling point. Seoul blames the north for the deadly sinking of a navy ship in March but Pyongyang denies responsibility.
"North Korea wants to go in cycles,” said political consultant Kim Byoung Joo. "Sometimes they want to raise the overall level of tensions here because of their own strategy and sometimes they want to tone it down and when that happens they tend to offer these humanitarian occasions as a bargaining chip."
South Koreans support more reunions whatever the cost
Pyongyang has said it will consider holding family reunions more frequently if Seoul hands over massive supplies of food and material aid. So far the South Korean government has balked at this request.
But Kim thought that because so many families have relatives up north, his included, most South Koreans would support giving Pyongyang what it wants in order to have more reunions. "For sure I think people want these reunions continued, whatever it takes. This is a humanitarian case because to many people it’s very painful," he said.
Jang Gi Hwa agreed. He said that even though his sister Young-ae seemed to have lived a relatively good life, she and other North Koreans were in real need of help from the South.
Jang said that he and his sister had cried even more as the reunion came to an end. He tried to comfort her with hope for the future: "Stay well, be healthy. Soon our country is going to be reunified, let's hope to see you soon."
But Jang wasn't really sure his words would come true in his and his sister’s lifetime, if at all.
Author: Jason Strother (Seoul)
Editor: Anne Thomas