Hundreds of South Koreans cross border to North for reunions with relatives separated since war 60 years ago.
In August, North and South Korea agreed to hold another meeting for the divided families. It is scheduled to happen in late October, at the special facility which was built for such family reunions at the Mount Kumgang resort on North Korean territory, but close to the border.
Since the discontinuation of the meetings in 2010, which at one time had been regular, this facility has been largely empty for nearly five years, aside from only one such reunion in 2014.
The divided families’ issue is a bitter legacy of Korea’s division when in August 1945 American and Russian generals agreed on a dividing line across the peninsula. The line, worked out in a great hurry by two American colonels, was completely arbitrary.
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The colonels took a ruler and a small map, allegedly torn from the National Geographic, and in few minutes drew a straight line which divided the country – then still under Japanese occupation – into two roughly equal parts. It was agreed that it would be Russia’s responsibility to fight the Japanese army north of the line, while the southern part would be the US’ task.
However, the division, born of the pure military necessity, soon solidified. The Cold War began, and Moscow and Washington helped their clients and allies to establish two separate and mutually hostile governments in the North and South, respectively.
A war between the South and North followed, with usual murder and mayhem, and in 1953, the provisional demarcation line became the curiously misnamed “Demilitarised Zone” (DMZ), arguably the world’s most heavily fortified and non-transparent border.
Nevertheless, since the division came out of the blue, many families found themselves separated by this line.
The number of divided families increased greatly in the subsequent years. People of the right-wing political sympathies and religious activists fled the North, where the communist dictatorship purged the “reactionary elements” and treated religions as reactionary “opium for the people”.
The left-leaning activists, on the contrary, ran from the South where the right-wing dictatorship treated the real and alleged communists with remarkable ferocity. The chaos of the Korean War in 1950-1953 made such escapes much easier for a while.
Not all escapees were driven by political ambitions. For one family I know of, a father signed up for a difficult but well-paying job as a coal miner far north in early 1945. It was assumed that within a year he would settle down and bring his wife and two children there.
But division came, and the last time this family heard of their husband and father was in 1946, when a common friend who fled from the North delivered to them a letter and a bit of money.
Unlike a divided Germany, where the postal exchanges were never a problem, and where the cross-border family visits became quite common in the 1970s, no postal exchange between the two Korean states exists, and trips are out of the question.
Another example is a man who is one of the oldest persons on the current list of those who have registered for the possible reunion. He is 98 years old.
In 1950, he was drafted into the North Korean army and marched south, but his unit disintegrated under a massive air raid. He escaped then was taken as a prisoner – and has remained in the South since. He left a two-year-old son in the North, of whom he still knows nothing.
A new hope
Unlike a divided Germany, where the postal exchanges were never a problem and where the cross-border family visits became quite common in the 1970s, no postal exchange between the two Korean states exists, and trips are out of the question.
Only in the early 2000s, during a short-lived detente, did the two sides agree to have regular family reunions.
A special facility was built on the North Korean side of the border, since the North Korean authorities do not want their people to see the present-day South (the income gap between the two states is huge, and the weaker part did not want to advertise it).
However, a crisis – a naval clash and then an exchange of artillery fire – led to a collapse of North-South exchanges, and family reunions were discontinued.
Time was running out: Between 1945 and 1953, an estimated 1.5 million Koreans, or some five percent of the entire population, moved North or South, often leaving their families behind.
Since 1988, the South Koreans could register as members of the divided families, and so their names are included on lists given to the North Korean authorities.
The Northern authorities then locate those family members – who can be located and who are also deemed reliable enough to meet with the Southerners.
As of last September, 130,409 people had registered themselves. However, all of them are in their 70s and older, and nearly half of them – 63,921 people – are dead by now.
The reunions began on October 20, as scheduled – but they won’t be particularly cheerful: When meetings are over, family members will part again – forever. No postal exchange between the two Koreas exists, and this is not going to change anytime soon.
Still, one last meeting is better than no meetings at all.
Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.