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Asia

Political theater as Korean families reunite

Members of 150 families from South and North Korea are being reunited for the first time in decades. But particularly in North Korea, the often emotional meetings are being used for political leverage.

On Thursday, February 24, 82 South Koreans met with 180 North Koreans in the North's Mount Kumgang resort. The strong emotions of those reunited echo the gruesome war that cut the Korean peninsula in half more than sixty years ago. Both sides fought brutally. While the North, supported by China, applied guerilla tactics, the US-led South used carpet bombs and napalm. There was a high number of civilian casualties: several million Koreans died and tens of thousands of families were torn apart by war and chaos.

Even before the Korean War began in 1950, 1.2 million North Koreans had fled to the Southern part of the country. But the armistice in 1953 did not end the suffering for the couples and families that had been separated.

Even now, scarcely any life permeates the border drawn at the 38th parallel north: no letters can be sent, no telephone calls or trips can be made between the two Koreas, and there is hardly any media information from across the border because incompatible TV standards prevent South Koreans from seeing North Korean programs and vice versa. Listening to South Korean radio stations is illegal in the North. Moreover, direct contact between citizens without a permit is punishable by law - in both countries.

A mirror of Korean history

Two relatives are reunited at the inter-Korean family reunions at Mount Kumgang resort. (Photo: EPA/YONHAP NEWS AGENCY)

Half the participants of the inter-Korean family reunions are over 80

The rarity of family reunions shows just how deep the dividing line that cuts through the peninsula really is. The first reunion of 151 Koreans took place in 1985, when a brief thaw in inter-Korean relations allowed a meeting the Red Cross had been struggling to arrange for fourteen years. The South Koreans selected to make the journey to Pyongyang were greeted by relatives who sang songs praising Kim Il-sung, the North Korean president at the time.

But the meeting was just a brief moment of respite from the Cold War. It wasn't until the historic meeting in 2000 between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-il, that the next reunion was organized in a Seoul congress hall. At the meeting, the North made a point of having Ryu Mi-yong, a prominent defector from the South lead the delegation.

A group of North Koreans bid a painful farewell to their families living in South Korea after a three-day reunion at a Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea in 2010. (Photo: EPA/YONHAP NEWS AGENCY)

Goobyes after the reunions are painful and usually final

Ever since, 22,000 Koreans from more than 4,000 families have been reunited thanks to the help of the Red Cross - 18,000 of them face to face and 4,000 in video conferences. The last meeting took place in 2010. South Korean participants are selected via a computerized lottery system.

However, the number of people affected by the split has been in steady decline. 57,000 South Koreans died without ever seeing their loved ones in the North again. More than half of the Koreans taking part in this week's reunion in the Mount Kumgang resort are over 80 years old.

Reward expected

What is tragic about these meetings is that they are becoming an ideological game for the North Korean regime. The South knows that North Korea expects a reward for consenting to the family reunions - a reward in the shape of economic aid and political concessions. Pyongyang is usually only interested in organizing the reunions when they are economically or politically beneficial.

In autumn 2013, Pyongyang canceled the first reunion that had been planned in three years, accusing Seoul of animosity and insults. The move was probably a reaction to the arrest of a South Korean politician who had been accused of plotting to overthrow the Seoul government in a leftist coup.

Pyongyang normally doesn't take much of a risk in agreeing to the reunions: There is usually only one participant from the North at the reunions to every four or five from the South. The participants are selected for their loyalty to the party line and are watched around the clock.

One North Korean refugee told DW: "They have to learn their answers by heart first, so they don't say anything wrong." Even before the most recent family reunion, North Korea demanded that the South cancel a military drill with the US.

No illusions

Despite the tensions, observers see this reunion as a sign of rapprochement between the two Koreas, particularly after North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle and potential rival Chang Song-thaek executed.

The South is not under any illusions that the family reunions will lead to a political reconciliation. After all, the meetings end up being just as sudden and tragic as the country's division: after the happy participants have been reunited, they can be sure they will never see each other again.

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