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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Family Reunions: Canceled

by | September 23rd, 2013 | 07:00 am

Over the weekend, the North Koreans canceled the family reunions involving 100 North Koreans and 96 South Koreans scheduled for September 25-30 (Choe Sang-Hun for the New York Times; Yonhap). The statement issued by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) contained a laundry list of grievances, from hostile statements by South Korean officials to the arrests of leftists in the UPP-Lee Seok-ki case. In typical North Korean fashion, the statement also sought to shift the onus for resumption of the reunions back on the South, claiming that the visits were postponed until “a normal atmosphere is created” for constructive dialogue.

The family reunions were clearly part of the North Korean quid-pro-quo for the re-opening of Kaesong; Marc Noland reviewed the terms of the agreement less than two weeks ago.  Kaesong’s operations have resumed, but with the family reunions in abeyance the Park administration has been left empty-handed.  Not surprisingly, the South Korean statement from MOU showed a fair amount of pique and its own list of grievances. Seoul does not appear in the mood to accept the cancellation without a response.

We should have seen that something was coming; recent days have seen some particularly hardline statements about the South that appeared to have military fingerprints on them. Prior to the statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) canceling the reunions, the KCNA had run an unusual series of three back-to-back (September 18-20) stories on ROK Minister of Defense Kim Kwan Jin, including a circular from CPRF itself. The charges: Minister Kim had called North Korea’s nuclear weapons “threatening,” had continued joint exercises with the US, and had made statements designed to signal the deterrent by promising retaliation for cross-border provocations. However, he also ventured into the UPP-Lee Seok-ki case. According to the KCNA, Minister Kim cited the case as an example of broader asymmetric warfare efforts by the North Koreans at a defense briefing in Seoul.

The CPRF statement (September 21) canceling the family reunions reiterates all of these themes, including the arrest of “pro-unification patriots.” But the statement seemed particularly offended at claims by unnamed administration officials that Park’s tough-minded approach to negotiations with the North—presumably over Kaesong–had brought them to the table.

The CPRF statement was also offended by claims that the Kumgang project was a cash cow, but snags having to do with the Kumgang site only seemed to confirm the claim. As the visits got closer, North and South got into a dispute over the exact venue for the reunions within the Mt. Kumgang resort. North Korea notified the South that the main hotel built by Hyundai could not be used because it was booked by Chinese tourists; recall that Hyundai’s Kumgang assets had not only been confiscated in April 2010, but the North Koreans passed a a revised law on the site in May 2011 that allowed them to let the assets to other operators. Rather than the main hotel, the North Koreans offered the floating Haegeumgang Hotel–unused for five years–and the lodging area used by Hyundai employees before they were withdrawn. South Korean officials had been at the Kumgang complex to survey the site, but were subsequently pulled when the North canceled.

Pyongyang’s manipulation of family reunions is one of the more cynical and cruel features of the on-again, off-again North-South relationship; the Ministry of Unification website provides an overview of the reunions, including some of the South’s own missteps. From 2000 to August 2009, a total of 20,848 people or 4,130 families managed to meet briefly in highly stage-managed settings, about 80% in 17 rounds of face-to-face reunions and the remainder through seven video reunions.  Another 1,728 were reunited through a less well-known private reunion program. After the inauguration of Lee Myung-bak, relations soured and tourism and family reunions were suspended following the killing of South Korean tourist Park Wang at the Kumgang resort. Negotiations in August 2009 opened the door to two more rounds of reunions in the fall that briefly reunited 889 people. But the South sought to link the family reunion, POW and abductee issues and the door once more closed until the negotiations of 2013 (our analysis of the initial North Korean offer can be found here; the path of the early negotiations here.)

The cruelty resides in the aging of the separated families; time is running out. The ROK’s Integrated Information Center for Separated Families maintains a database on those who have applied for family reunions. The most recent data available on the MOU website estimates that as of June 2010, 128,124 people were registered in the system, but only 84,134 were still alive; 43,990 had passed away. The New York Times story reports that that number has now fallen to 73,000 with more than half over 80 years old, and claims that 2000 on the list die each year. But each year, that number will get larger.