SABRINA VERDUZCO WRITES – In recent months, relations between North and South Korea have consisted of artillery fire exchanges and confrontations. Tension has abated to a certain extent since then – thanks to Red Cross officials that no doubt mediated the talks from both sides of the North-South spectrum. As a result, the two countries have reached an agreement that is paving the way for families split between 38th parallel to finally reunite for the first time since February 2014. Currently, the plan is for 100 people from each side to reunite with formerly isolated relatives in late October for 6 days.
According to the South’s Unification Ministry, both North and South Korea share the belief they should work to “fundamentally resolve humanitarian issues.” But, critics claim that the reunion program lacks efficiency and involves too few families.
South Korea has made efforts in making the reunions a top priority, but North Korea has continually proven to be unreliable in adhering to deadlines and promises. Thousands of families have been isolated from one another since the 1950-1953 Korean War, which was a key factor in determining the annual frequency of the reunions. These events have often been cancelled as a result of fickle North-South relations.
The scarcity of chances to contact family members on opposite sides of the Korean border only serve to amplify the desire to reunite with families on the other side. Jang Chun, one of the 100 South Koreans able to travel to North Korea in the last reunion, described his experience after receiving a letter with photos of his brother and family. Chun stated he “didn’t even know they were alive, although [he] had hoped they were. After reading the letter, [he] started crying, [he] was filled with both joy and sorrow.” It has become evident that North Korea utilizes these reunions as leverage when striving to demonstrate a distaste with the actions of its Southern counterpart.
For the individuals who are able to participate, these reunions are overwhelmingly emotional affairs, with most of the participants breaking down and sobbing as they embrace one another. Yet, only 66,000 South Koreans (mostly in their 70s and 80s) are all that remain on the waiting list for a speculative reunion. This is only half of the estimated 129,000 applicants for reunions that have died since the reunions began in August 2000.