Korean reunions: Too much politics, too little time

A picture taken by South Korean Nam Jeong Bun on Oct 21, 2015, shows Kim Kum Sun (right), 78, serving food to her North Korean brother, Kim Chang Ho (left), 87, during a family reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort.
A picture taken by South Korean Nam Jeong Bun on Oct 21, 2015, shows Kim Kum Sun (right), 78, serving food to her North Korean brother, Kim Chang Ho (left), 87, during a family reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - In the end, Kim Kum Sun and the North Korean brother she last saw in 1951 were given just 12 hours to try and soothe the accumulated pain of nearly 65 years of separation.

As impossible for them as it was for the hundred or so other families who wrapped up a three-day inter-Korean reunion on Thursday (Oct 22), the situation underlines the emotional price exacted for the rare opportunity to participate in such events.

Given that there are more than 65,000 South Koreans currently on the waiting list for a reunion spot, those selected represent a very fortunate minority.

But the reality of the highly-controlled, tightly time-restricted meetings means that many come away with their expectations shattered.

"Of course it was wonderful just to see my elder brother again," said Kim, 78.

"But it was so short; unbearably short really. And now I just feel enormous sorrow at the idea that I'll probably never see him again," she told AFP after returning home to Seoul.

The "three-day" tag attached to the reunion is misleading. In reality, that boils down to six, two-hour sessions - only one of which allows the separated relatives to sit down face-to-face in private.

"It's absurd" said Kim's daughter Nam Jeong Bun, who accompanied her to the reunion held in a mountain resort in North Korea.


"The families need much longer to even begin a meaningful conversation, and they should be allowed to share a room at night," she said.

"The time limits make the final farewell very, very difficult. You barely have time to meet and then it's all over," she added.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and was initially an annual event. But strained cross-border relations meant that this week's gathering was only the second in five years.

Pyongyang has long manipulated the reunion issue as a tool for extracting concessions from Seoul, and sees its agreement to hold the meetings as an act of diplomatic largesse that merits reward.

From the very first reunion, South Korea has pushed for extended, more frequent gatherings.

"The negotiations are always very tough and North Korea has been unbending about limiting the hours, as well as the actual number of reunions," said an official with the Unification Ministry in Seoul.

"At least this time we managed to extend the final farewell session from one hour to two, but even that wasn't easy," the official said.

Observers say the North has little to gain from the actual reunions, and is focused solely on restricting the amount of time its citizens spend in the company of their clearly more affluent South Korean kin.

In a reflection of the stark economic divide between the two Koreas, all the South Korean families bring gift packages, including clothes, watches, medicine, food and - in most cases - around US$1,500 (S$ 2,090) in cash.


After the lack of time, the most common complaint of the South Korean participants is the politicisation of the reunions.

"The group meetings are very noisy," said Sun Kyeong Soo, 71, who met her North Korean cousin for the first time.

"So it's not easy to hear each other, and because it was public I think our cousin felt obligated to make a lot of loud political statements about the superiority of North Korea's system and its leadership," Sun said.

"I understand why he did it, but it was hard to bear and we tried to stop him several times," she added.

While the one private session allows for more intimate conversation, many reported that their North Korean relatives still spent a substantial amount of that precious time either praising the North or disparaging the US military presence in South Korea.

"I'm sure he must have gone through some ideological refresher course before coming to see us," Sun said.