Correction: A previous version of this article said 17,228 had participated in the meetings, when in fact the correct number is 19,229. The article has been amended to reflect that fact.
Next week the two Koreas will hold their 23rd meeting of divided families, the first since 2015 and the first to take place under the Moon Jae-in administration. In this context, it seems fitting to look back at past events – and how the meetings came about in the first place.
The fate of Korea was decided by Colonels Bonesteel and Rusk who in August 1945 suggested that Korea be divided into the Soviet and American occupation zones. The 38th parallel cut the peninsula in half – separating all who had relatives on the other side of the line.
In the years preceding the Korean War, the demarcation line became harder and harder to cross. When the war broke out, it turned many Koreans into refugees, and more families were separated in the chaos of the war – some were conscripted, some lost their loved ones when fleeing from the conflict.
With the war coming to an end in 1953, Korea was still divided – and the iron curtain separating what used to be one nation was much less penetrable than that in Europe.
For decades, the typical situation for a divided family was to have no information whatsoever about the fate of their relatives.
THE ROAD TO THE FIRST MEETING
For many years after the war the very idea of a meeting of divided families seemed inconceivable. There were no talks between the two Koreas and another war seemed like a possibility: during the First Republic, Seoul accepted the armistice only as a provisional measure, and until as late as the 1960s, Kim Il Sung entertained the idea of a second invasion of the South.
It was only in 1971, during a brief inter-Korean détente, when the idea of family reunions was put in motion. On August 12 that year, the head of the South Korean Red Cross announced that a meeting was being planned, and South Korea began to put together a registry of divided families.
However, with the breakdown of talks, these plans were not put in motion for another decade, and were revived only in 1983.
Initially the South’s initiative was met with a lot of criticism and resistance from the North, which pointed out that it was Seoul which forbade South Koreans from going to the North and claimed South Korea was solely responsible for the division of families. However, after extensive talks, diplomacy prevailed.
The registries of the families were compiled and exchanged and it was agreed that in September 1985, two meetings would take place. Northerners would go to Seoul and Southerners to Pyongyang. Cultural performances would also take place in both capitals.
The plan was successfully put in motion. In September, South Korean press reported how – for the first time in decades – South Koreans crossed the military demarcation line to their homeland. They were taken to Pyongyang where, on the third floor of the Koryo hotel, they could finally see their loved ones.
Like all the subsequent meetings, this of was full of deeply touching moments – and perhaps, even more so, since this meeting was the first and conducted during the Cold War.
It did seem like a small miracle. For three days, people could talk to their relatives, until they had to go back, likely to never see them again.
The meeting was duly reported in both Koreas. The North talked about it in an typically positive light, stressing that all participants wanted unification to happen. This looked somewhat odd, since at the same time Pyongyang was condemning the “fascist puppet clique” in Seoul – but it has since then become a pattern of reporting in the DPRK: all meetings are good (since the leader approved of them), no matter which administration is in power in Seoul.
TWENTY MEETINGS AND SEVEN ON-SCREEN TALKS
After 1985, no new agreement on meetings took place for 15 years. In November 1989, talks broke down, since the North insisted that they want to play a revolutionary opera in the South and Seoul was adamant that that would not happen.
In 1992, an agreement was reached – but the North nullified it at the last moment. In 1998, Pyongyang demanded to be supplied with fertilizer in exchange for approval – and Seoul refused.
Only after the first inter-Korean summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il in 2000 was the idea revived.
The summit was a turning point in the history of the meetings, and they became to be conducted more or less on a biannual basis. Until 2002, they were held in both the North and South, until Pyongyang decided it would be safer to hold them exclusively in the North.
In 2005, on-screen meetings, in which people did not physically meet their relatives, but could talk to them on videophone, began to be conducted. Seven of such events were conducted in two years, with them being duly reported in the North in short, but positive messages (as far as the Rodong Sinmun was concerned, Kim Jong Il’s on the spot guidances were much bigger news).
The crushing defeat of the left in South Korea’s 2007 presidential elections led to the decline of most inter-Korean projects and the meetings were another victim of this trend – there were only two meetings held under Lee and two more under Park.
In the later years of her tenure Park was an adamant believer that the North would collapse within two years – and, as the South Korean media later revealed, this belief was almost entirely based on predication some shaman made to Park’s friend Choi Sun-sil – the mastermind of her administration.
With the fall of Park came a new administration more open to inter-Korean exchanges and, despite some earlier setbacks, April saw Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in agree to hold family reunions in August.
Only South Korea releases statistics on the divided families. As of June 2018, 132,484 people had registered as members of divided families. 75,425 of them, about 57%, are dead. Of those still alive, 12,295 are over 90 years old. More than 80% of the registry were separated from their closest relatives: brothers, sisters, spouses, parents.
Most were born in the southern part of North Korea – if only the border had been different in 1953, they could have been with their families – and most now live in the northern part of South Korea. Most, almost two thirds, are men.
In total, as of July 2018, the number of people who participated in these meetings is 19,229.
There is really no reason why these meetings cannot be held every week, but the North Korean leadership is so afraid of outside influence that they require months of preparation at best.
Another problem that people who have relatives in the South typically do not have a very good kyechung – they fall in the “basic” class and reportedly were a part of the “hostile” caste before. Granting these people an opportunity to meet South Koreans is quite contradictory to North Korean ideology.
On the other hand, the meetings have reportedly become a income for corrupt North Korean officials who decided who would be allowed to participate – and money typically prevails over ideology.
Naturally, participants were educated in what they were supposed to say (that the DPRK is the socialist paradise for the people led by peerlessly great men from Paektu mountain) and this is why the North insisted in holding these meetings in its own territory. The meetings themselves are usually regulated – giving the DPRK secret police an opportunity to listen to what is being said.
Chu Song-ha, a South Korean journalist from the North, has said that Seoul should insist on giving the people an opportunity to move around the meeting place together – and to be close to each other as long as they want – then the North Koreans would have at least a chance of saying what they really think.
Contact between two Koreas is extremely limited and nearly every visit of South Koreans to the North, and vice-versa, is perceived as a major event, requiring authorization at the highest levels.
The history of the divided families, is perhaps, the most vivid demonstration why this author believes the two Koreas will never be unified through a “convergence of systems” or “federation.” Even this simple event, the humanitarian value and necessity of which is obvious to any human being – has been negotiated with more hardship and obstacles than most major international agreements on much more serious issues.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ministry of Unification