A top United Nations official in South Korea spoke out about the “pressing” need to resume reunions for families separated by the Korean War, blaming Pyongyang’s strict social control over citizens for getting in the way.
Speaking to NK News last week on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, Signe Poulsen — representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul — urged both Koreas not to treat the roughly 50,000 people officially waiting to meet relatives as a mere “bargaining chip.”
“The separation happened, of course, because of a wartime situation,” Poulsen said. “But the continued separation of these families is entirely unnecessary.”
The leaders of the two Koreas agreed to hold more reunions for separated families during their first summit in April 2018. But only one such event ever took place since — the reunion at Mount Kumgang resort in September 2018, more than a year and a half ago.
Efforts to hold video conference calls between separated families, proposed by Seoul last year, have also failed to materialize.
More than 80,000 divided family members have passed away since first registering interest to meet relatives in the North, according to data published earlier this year by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU). Some 50,000 people — about 65 percent of whom are above the age of 80 — remain on waiting lists.
Poulsen told NK News that the responsibility for this continued delay lies firmly with North Korea, which has largely snubbed South Korea’s calls for dialogue since the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019.
“The fact that [another reunion] hasn’t been arranged is primarily because of the level of control that North Korea continues to impose on its population,” she said. “Indeed, it’s almost emblematic of the sort of deep restrictions on freedom of expression and movement and access to information [that exist there].”
“This is one of the things that both the Koreas agreed on in Panmunjom,” she added. “We had one event, but this falls far short of what many people had hoped for or envisaged at that time.”
Poulsen also stated that efforts must be made to ensure that separated families do not become “political pawns,” and that large-scale reunion events happen more frequently and in more innovative formats.
“Reunion events are good, but what one really wishes could happen is also a sustained contact between those people who have participated or not participated — some kind of exchange of letters, or video links,” she said. “There doesn’t have to be anything political about that. This is a purely humanitarian and human rights matter.”
The top UN official’s remarks follow several apparent steps from North Korea last week to de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula — tensions that saw Pyongyang vow to redeploy soldiers to previously-demilitarized border areas, as well as blow up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong.
Those escalations were at least partly motivated by Seoul’s failure to stop activists from launching balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets into North Korean territory — launches that the South Korean government has since promised to crack down on.
“Freedom of expression can be limited under certain circumstances, and that includes, of course, the security risk,” Poulsen told NK News last week. “So, it’s not inconceivable that, under certain circumstances, the South Korean government might indeed stop launches of balloons and leaflets.”
However, Poulsen urged Seoul to find “alternatives” for defector-activists and other civil society organizations if the government does move forward with a crackdown on leaflet launches.
“Their work is very important,” she stated. “They do have an important role to play and an important voice in this … whole inter-Korean dialogue.”
Poulsen declined to weigh in on whether or not Seoul should encourage launches that send aid and information to North Korea instead of launches that send inflammatory messages, such as negative caricatures of North Korean leadership.
“Who are we to say which messages are effective in North Korea and which ones are not?” she said. “I think the bigger question is: If it’s indeed the messages that are seen as dangerous to North Korea, what else should we should stop? Should we stop radio from broadcasting in?”
“There are no black and white answers.”
Edited by Kelly Kasulis
A top United Nations official in South Korea spoke out about the "pressing" need to resume reunions for families separated by the Korean War, blaming Pyongyang's strict social control over citizens for getting in the way.
Speaking to NK News last week on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, Signe Poulsen -- representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul -- urged both Koreas not to treat the roughly 50,000 people officially waiting to meet relatives as a mere "bargaining chip."