North and South Korea have announced that family reunions for those separated by the 1950-53 war will resume next month, after a three-year hiatus. It is the latest in a series of moves suggesting that relations between the two embittered nations are improving after a year in which North Korea threatened war against the South.
One hundred people from each side will be chosen in a lottery to take part in reunions that will be held at North Korea’s Kumgang Resort. For the chosen few it will be a special occasion, but for the many thousands of separated families the question is: Could this announcement pave the way for reconciliation between the two countries?
Tensions have been high in the Korean peninsula following the launch of a satellite and an underground nuclear test by North Korea. Increased sanctions by the United Nations saw the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, announce that the 1953 armistice was no longer active.
Belligerent war rhetoric was viewed as a ploy to unite North Korea under their new leader and test the reaction of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye.
China, a close ally of the North, increased pressure on Kim Jong-un by agreeing that they are "the same in their positions and objectives" as the United States on the North Korean nuclear issue. This, combined with a calm and measured response from Park Geun-hye, may have contributed to a thawing of relations that has resulted in an agreement to re-open a joint industrial zone between North and South Korea.
John Swenson-Wright, senior fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, believes the best hope for reconciliation lies with the South Korean Ministry of Unification who he says has ‘maintained a moderate, pragmatic posture’. The announcement from the Ministry of Unification would suggest that it can play a key role in forging improved relations between the two countries.
Yet, the spectre of another unprovoked attack from the North looms large and could undo any progress made in negotiations. Indeed, history suggests that conciliatory moves toward the South have political motivations usually in the shape of securing large aid donations to prop up North Korea’s struggling economy. Increased sanctions and a ratcheting up of pressure by China likely means the offer of family reunions are an attempt by Kim Jong-un to win a lucrative aid package that will protect his regime.
Reconciliation appears a distant hope and separated families may never have the opportunity to reunite. Of the 73,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for a reunion, over half are more than 80 years old. An average of 2,000 South Koreans on the waiting list die every year. Kim Kyung-ryun, a South Korean who has been waiting for decades on the waiting list but never been picked, said: “I wonder whether my chance will ever come”.
Beyond the political game of chess being played between these two nations thousands of families remain forcibly separated. It is a tragedy that is swiftly becoming irreparable as those who remember life before 1953 pass on. If a solution cannot be found soon the impetus for reconciliation will be weakened with the loss of tangible links between separated families and communities.