Featured image: Joint Press Corps at Mt. Geumgang
Inter-Korean family reunions: why now, and what broader impact?
Experts weigh in on the past, present, and future of this week's Mt. Kumgang meetings
The two Koreas kicked off reunions of families separated by the Korean War on Monday, in a series of events set to last all week and taking place at the DPRK’s Mount Kumgang.
The first event of their kind since 2015 – and the 21st to take place since 2000 – this week will see siblings, parents, and other relatives reunited for the first time in over half a century in what are famously heart-wrenching scenes that paint a vivid portrait of the peninsula’s continued division.
But beyond their clear necessity from a humanitarian perspective lie more troubling questions: on the politics keeping the families apart, on the use of emotion to sway hearts and minds in both the North and South, and, perhaps most importantly, whether there’s a chance more meetings will be able to take place in the future.
To make sense of these questions, NK News reached out to a wide range of North Korea watchers and specialists from across the globe and the political spectrum.
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
- Patrick M. Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
- Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds
- Chris Green, consultant and analyst at the International Crisis Group
- Hoo Chiew Ping, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations, National University of Malaysia (UKM)
- Soo Kim, former CIA North Korea analyst
- Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at Tufts University
- Jung H. Pak, senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies
- Rosa Park, Director of Programs and Editor at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
- Daniel Pinkston, Lecturer in International Relations, Troy University
- Peter Ward, writer for NK Pro, MA candidate at Seoul National University in the Department of Sociology
What do you think has been the primary reason for the three-year gap between the meetings?
Patrick Cronin: The resumption of reunions at Mt. Kumgang is the low-hanging fruit of inter-Korean rapprochement, and if anything the mystery is why it has taken this long in the process to resume them. One assumes North Korth expected more concessions in exchange for restarting one of the most deeply personal and emotional elements of North-South diplomacy.
Aidan Foster-Carter: Because North Korea loathed Park Geun-hye. With Moon too, Kim Jong Un didn’t exactly rush, did he? Old separatees die every day, but what does he care?
Chris Green: Separated family reunions are held as and when the North and South Korean authorities deem political conditions to be conducive to it. Regrettably, politics is the key variable.
The most recent reunions took place in October 2015. That was toward the end of a two-year period in which North and South made sporadic attempts at talks. Then Pyongyang changed policy. There was a nuclear test in early January 2016, and the North Korean government then pushed ahead with a variety of missile tests and – in September 2016 – a larger and more successful nuclear test. Clearly, Pyongyang was at the time committed to achieving military objectives and was not averse to building tensions in the region
We should also not forget that during 2016 and ’17 there was stasis in the South Korean government as malfeasance by the Park Geun-hye administration slowly came to light.
Even if external political conditions had been conducive to family reunions, which they absolutely were not, the South Korean government was in chaos during much of this period, and it is unclear that reunions could have been arranged even if the North Korean government had been in favor of doing so.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The gap is largely due to North Korea’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Park Geun-hye government, despite Park’s Trustpolitik and frequent calls for resumptions of reunions. One of the biggest reasons has to be Park’s decision to shutdown Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2016, much to North Korea’s surprise.
Thus, North Korea had held a grudge and refuse to cooperate or response to Park government’s inter-Korean reconciliation efforts, until the change of government that is now under Moon Jae-in’s leadership.
Soo Kim: The advent of the Moon administration signaled a change in the tone and temperature of inter-Korean relations. Fraught by tension, confrontation, and harsh language, relations between the two Koreas were chilly at best under the Park Geun-hye administration. In the midst of rising tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, there was, essentially, not enough leeway for the two sides to discuss the reunion of separated families.
The Moon administration’s willingness to engage with the Kim regime opened dialogue channels to resume previously suspended joint efforts, including family reunions, sports exchanges, and economic cooperation. The Moon administration’s prioritization of building peace on the Korean peninsula has built momentum and spurred progress in the planning and development of the various cultural, economic, and educational exchanges between the two Koreas.
Sung-Yoon Lee: The most curious thing about these meetings are why, after three decades of off-and-on meetings, Seoul has not been able to negotiate and win basic concessions–basic freedoms–like allowing the separated families to exchange letters and telephone calls.
Consenting to the North’s cruel demands that the families never meet again and never communicate with each other is unbecoming of rich democracy. In short, the meetings in their present form are a cruel TV reality show that benefit mostly the two colluding governments.
Jung H. Pak: North Korea has generally been reluctant to have more frequent, regularized meetings, preferring to use them for political leverage and to soften Pyongyang’s image.
Rosa Park: The family reunion meetings are time sensitive and should occur untouched by the political situation on the Korean peninsula. However, North Korea has shown time and time again that they will use family reunions as a pawn in their negotiating tactics.
Daniel Pinkston: Relatively speaking, this is more of a humanitarian issue for the South. Every ROK government is sensitive to the societal pressures to hold these reunions for humanitarian considerations. Although Seoul cannot be completely absolved of politicization, Pyongyang takes political considerations as a priority. Unfortunately, the family reunions have become an indicator of the overall inter-Korean relationship.
Peter Ward: Escalating tensions between the two Koreas. Remember that Kaesong was shut in early 2016, and tensions continued to spiral out of control until late last year. As relations deteriorated, the divided families issue was not a primary concern for either side.
Why do you believe the North appears to have dropped its previous demand that the meetings would only take place when the 12 restaurant worker-defectors were returned?
Aidan Foster-Carter: A rare North Korean concession. Of course the Ningbo Dozen issue per se is still very much in play; but yes, North Korea has dropped the linkage.
Here’s my take: Kim Jong Un needs a plausible-looking peace process with South Korea – if only to keep Seoul onside, in case it all goes pear-shaped with Trump. Ergo, Moon and the South Korean public must be tossed a few bones. Family reunions are easy; everyone knows the rules by now.
Chris Green: I do not believe North Korea has dropped its demand; rather, the demand is a tool, and it will be revived as and when it can be used to produce outcomes that are in Pyongyang’s interest.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the South Korean government has moved to park the issue with the National Human Rights Commission, which may have helped temporarily smooth the way for the separated family reunions.
Hoo Chiew Ping: I believe some compromises had been made, as the restaurant manager has confessed in the New York Times report that he was deceived by the previous government’s intelligent officials and admitted that the restaurant workers were not in the know of the defection plan.
He has since also been interviewed by Yonhap News Agency and a South Korean able channel, reiterating his account. To have these interviews to be allowed while the Ministry of Unification maintains the position that the workers defect on their own will, this shows that the Moon Jae-in government allows the message to be sent across to the North through non-governmental official channels.
Soo Kim: The DPRK’s persistence in demanding that South Korea return the 12 North Korean restaurant worker-defectors did little to help make progress in talks with Seoul and Washington on the North’s denuclearization – not to mention, a peace declaration to end the Korean War. From the outset, North Korea’s calculus in demanding the return of the worker-defectors probably was not aimed toward getting them back. The demand created controversy, stirring the pot just enough to gain international media attention and elicit some kind of response from the South Korean government.
Additionally, from an internal messaging perspective, South Korea’s (alleged) forced defection of North Korean workers carries propaganda value inside the DPRK. It’s an oft-used tactic by the Kim regime, presenting a case example to its population on the perils and difficulties of leaving the country.
We should ask the question, what would have happened to the restaurant worker-defectors if they had been sent back to North Korea? And what kind of message would this send – certainly to the North Korean people, but critically, to North Korea’s negotiating counterparts, Washington and Seoul, as the countries are trying to negotiate with the Kim regime? There likely would have been implications – on the safety of the worker-defectors upon returning to North Korea, and importantly, on the ongoing talks with South Korea and the United States. The regime is well-aware of these consequences, and thus, likely determined that insisting on this demand would only work to its harm.
Jung H. Pak: In this current scenario, I see the family reunions as a way that Kim is trying to show his good-faith effort to fulfil the pledges made with Moon during their first summit, keep the momentum going on improving inter-Korean ties, and also divert attention away from the nuclear issue.
Rosa Park: North Korea needs to show the world that it is serious about de-escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. They need to make substantive efforts. Using the 12 escapees from the restaurant as an excuse would not be strategically beneficial for the North Koreans.
Daniel Pinkston: Apparently, the DPRK leadership has concluded that the restaurant workers will not be repatriated, and Pyongyang has more to gain by dropping the demand and moving forward with the reunions.
Peter Ward: The North is in the middle of a complex game of chess with the United States, China and South Korea. The demand seemingly was designed to create a bargaining position in negotiations with the South, and it was rescinded later as a free concession.
Negotiations with the United States over the nuclear issue are not going well, and the North has been unable to extract additional concessions either from Seoul or Washington. At the same time, relations with Beijing are improving, and as the next Kim-Moon summit approaches, Pyongyang seems to be aiming to dial down inter-Korean tensions.
Beyond their immediate humanitarian importance, what do you think is the broader impact of these kinds of events?
Aidan Foster-Carter: Zero. See previous sentence. The first time, these scenes had some impact. Now we are used to them. They tell us the two Koreas are getting along, somewhat.
Chris Green: As a visual spectacle, the meetings are deeply moving. The fact that they are needed is an affront to traditional ideas of the family, and given that they receive blanket coverage in South Korean media, they thus remind viewers of the normatively unacceptable nature of peninsula division.
Internationally, such events raise awareness of Korean peninsula division, generating interest among people who are indifferent to the mainstays of discussion at places like NK News – nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, international diplomacy, marketization and the like.
Hoo Chiew Ping: Even though the families getting involved are smaller in number over the years, it is significant especially for the South Koreans to remind their younger generations that northern and southern Korea used to be one.
These unions will no longer be able to convene as the older generations are passing away, thus if the South Korean government is not able to seize any more such opportunities to improve inter-Korean relations, the cause of unification would be lost on the future generations.
Soo Kim: They create the perception that occasional lags in the progress of negotiations notwithstanding, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have improved such that the two governments are able to carry out bilateral cultural, educational, and recreational exchanges. To the general public, these events paint an optimistic picture of inter-Korean relations – an incomplete representation of the current situation when placed in the context of ongoing negotiations on the North’s nuclear program.
In this sense, they mask and take some of the heat off the stalled negotiations on the North Korean nuclear program. Of course, there is humanitarian value to allowing separated families to unite. But from the perspectives of the North Korean regime and the South Korean government, these events temporarily shift the public’s focus and expectations away from the denuclearization talks.
Sung-Yoon Lee: These single-shot hello-and-goodbye-forever meetings (“reunion” is a misnomer, as it implies the freedom to meet again and maintain continual contact) are a “win win” for both Seoul and Pyongyang.
The South Korean government can present the meetings as a sign of reconciliation and harbinger of peace to come. And the public, moved by the gripping emotional drama of the meetings, buys into it.
The North Korean government comes across as conciliatory and “reasonable,” and benefits from keeping Seoul on the hook for more possible meetings in the future. And Seoul always pays for all expenses.
Jung H. Pak: The family reunions demonstrate the real-life consequences of Korea’s division and it is unfortunate that politics get in the way of more frequent reunions, particularly given the advanced ages of the families waiting to be reunited.
Rosa Park: We have to remember that both North Koreans and South Koreans are one Korean people. Family reunions remind us of a once-unified Korea.
Daniel Pinkston: These events have been occurring intermittently since the mid-1980s, but with little or no spill-over effects into other issue areas. The separated family members are growing old, so the issue will disappear in the near future. Since the reunions have had no significant impact over the last 30 years, I don’t expect them to have much impact over the next 10. I would love to be wrong, but my expectations are very low.
Peter Ward: Of course, it’s great symbolism. It will help create a positive mood in the run-up to the next inter-Korean summit, and may help buy a bit more time in denuclearization negotiations.
But at some point relatively soon, such mood music will not be enough to forestall U.S.-ROK demands for movement on the nuclear issue. However, if the Sino-U.S. trade war keeps going the way it is, Kim Jong Un may not have to worry about additional sanctions or better enforcement of existing sanctions.
Is there a danger that the emotive nature of the event can be used as a propaganda for the North?
Chris Green: It can be used in that way, but I would not call it a “danger” because if we do, that implies that we might wish to avoid the “danger” by not having the reunions at all. The opposite is true. We simply have to swallow the downsides, because this is a humanitarian duty and should not be seen as a political choice.
Hoo Chiew Ping: There was a real risk of allowing North Korea to use family reunions as propaganda to influence the Southern relatives in the past. But the reason for not having the second one until 2000 after the first being held in 1985, was that there is a reverse risk for North Korea where the North Koreans would see that their Southern relatives are better dressed and fed.
However, North Korea has moved past using emotion in its propaganda strategy. Kim Jong Un has been trying to promote modernity and development to charm the South Koreans and foreigners into believing him as a humane leader that will bring real change and prosperity for his people.
Soo Kim: The reunion of divided families presents a ripe opportunity for North Korean propaganda to call attention to the need for the reunification of the two Koreas. What better way to tug at people’s heart strings than photo-ops of parents and children reunited after decades of separation? With most of the separated family members rapidly aging, this emotional message can also serve a political purpose in underscoring the urgency of reunification – the Kim regime can argue that reunification needs to happen “in our lifetime.”
Rosa Park: Most certainly. As I said before, North Korea has shown time and time again that they will use family reunions as a pawn in their negotiating tactics.
Daniel Pinkston: The [North Korean ruling party’s] Propaganda and Agitation Department is quite adept at creating and disseminating propaganda extolling the revolutionary accomplishments of the Kims and the party. It would be dereliction of duty if they did not try to exploit these events.
I would expect the Propaganda and Agitation Department to present a narrative surrounding the humanitarian benevolence of Kim and the KWP. Embedded in that narrative would be a suggestion of how cooperative Pyongyang can be if Seoul and the rest of the world accepts the DPRK as a “normal nuclear state” and are willing to conduct business on Pyongyang’s terms.
Peter Ward: Yes, it can be used in North Korean agitprop, and such scenes will make many people on the peninsula feel sad. It’s a true tragedy. But it is unlikely to change many minds in the South on the threat that North Korea potentially poses. The humanitarian side of the issue seems to be far more important than any potential worries about such scenes being used in North Korean agitprop.
Do you think it’s likely that we’ll see a return to more regular meetings, as we saw in the Sunshine Years?
Patrick Cronin: I would expect the process of at least periodic reunions to continue for the foreseeable future. That said, the diplomatic framework of engaging Kim Jong Un is precarious and could come to an abrupt halt should the denuclearization talks prove to be at an impasse.
One danger is that inter-Korea engagement proceeds while U.S.-DPRK engagement fails to move forward; this would make it easier for Pyongyang to exploit the widening gulf between Washington and Seoul.
Aidan Foster-Carter: Yes, provided the new North-South peace process holds, which on balance I think it will, then reunions may become more regular.
But so what? What we urgently need is progress. More, bigger, better reunions. Allow letters, email, phone calls etc. Normal regular human contact. Is this on Seoul’s agenda? If not, why the hell not?
Chris Green: Yes, we’ll see more regular meetings for the simple reason that we are now in a period of dialogue between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the United States.
But the sad truth is that it has not yet been possible to regularize the reunions, thus depoliticizing what should be a purely humanitarian project. As a consequence, the regularity with which meetings take place in future will remain largely dependent on political dialogue elsewhere.
Hoo Chiew Ping: Regular meetings had not been possible due to constant North Korean provocations, especially in recent years. The meetings during the Sunshine years were actually being perceived as appeasement policy, as Kim Dae-jung struggled with the Battle of Yeonpyeong Island in 1999 and the more serious one known as the Second Battle in 2002.
Moon Jae-in has been careful not to craft an image of appeasing the North akin to his mentor Roh Moo-hyun.
I see no reason for the meetings not to be held regularly, given the reason cited in answering the previous question that the older generation will not be able to generate much impact on the younger generation’s mind. But given the positive vibe of inter-Korean peace process that the current government is trying to project and maintain, reunions matter much more to the South Koreans than to the North Koreans, of which the North Korean government would use as a tool to reward or signal in negotiation or reconciliation progress.
Soo Kim: We can’t be too sure as to the trajectory of relations with North Korea. Even if we see progress in the denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, and continued cultural, economic, and educational exchanges between the two Koreas notwithstanding, the Kim regime may choose to abruptly pull back for any arbitrary reason it chooses to cite.
Inter-Korean educational and cultural exchanges may continue, but this does not mean that we will be seeing the same enthusiasm and cooperation from the DPRK on denuclearization talks.
Sung-Yoon Lee: I expect these political shows to continue in the near term as Kim Jong Un continues his carrot campaign in search of time and money with which to perfect his own nuclear posture review.
Jung H. Pak: I hope that we can see more regular meetings—these are low hanging fruit for North Korea if the regime is serious about changing its tune. But I’m not going to hold my breath.
Rosa Park: I hope that we will return to regular meetings without manipulation of the meetings by North Korea. We must remember that the Sunshine Policy brought a lump sum payment of $500 million to North Korea with no strings attached. It would be difficult to do that again today with all eyes on the Korean peninsula.
Daniel Pinkston: I’m doubtful, but would love to be surprised. But if that were to be the case, we are running out of time given the advanced ages of the family members.
Peter Ward: If U.S.-North Korea relations improve substantially, regular meetings look like a definite possibility. But with the Trump administration demanding big concessions from the North and the North being rather reluctant to give anything meaningful, it seems likely that Washington (and by extension Seoul) will go back to maximum pressure some time next year.
Under such circumstances, Pyongyang will likely not allow any more family reunions, although one cannot rule out the possibility that Pyongyang will continue holding them, hoping to put pressure on Seoul to break from the Washington line.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
The two Koreas kicked off reunions of families separated by the Korean War on Monday, in a series of events set to last all week and taking place at the DPRK's Mount Kumgang.
The first event of their kind since 2015 - and the 21st to take place since 2000 - this week will see siblings, parents, and other relatives reunited for the first time in over half a century in what are famously heart-wrenching scenes that paint a vivid portrait of the peninsula's continued division.