Seoul (AsiaNews) On Sunday, July 11, a group of 471 South Koreans went home after attending the now traditional gathering of families divided by the Korean War (1950-53). Tomorrow a smaller group (149 people) will leave Sokcho, a South Korean city on the eastern border, to meet their relatives at Mount Geumgang, a special resort area in North Korea.
"It was another moving experience that brought reconciliation to families and the two Koreas," Alberto Kim Seok-In, a South Korean Catholic, told AsiaNews. "A South Korean woman in her nineties was finally able to see her 73-year old son, Rim Seung-ho, who gave her a letter in which he expressed his deepest sadness for not being unable to see his father and siblings," Kim said.
This is the tenth reunion of its kind since the historic summit of June 2000, in Pyongyang, between the leaders of the two Koreas North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-Il, who succeeded his father Kim Il-Sung in 1994, and then South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung which has inaugurated a thaw in relations between the two countries.
"Even leading political figures have been able to see their relatives," said Maria Yim, a nun with the Sisters of Jesus Good Shepherd. Among them, Moon Jae-in, senior presidential secretary for civic and social agenda, who accompanied his 77-year old mother to meet his 55-year old aunt Kang Byung-ok. The nun also said that although weather conditions prevented outdoor activities like walking or going on outings people were entertained by North Korean theatre shows.
"The reunions are pre-planned," said Ghimb Hong Rae, a Catholic official living in Seoul. "People are not entirely free. They must meet according to a predetermined schedule and too much intimacy is not permitted. For example, South Korean guests have to stay at hotels and cannot stay overnight with their relatives." However, the desire to get together is so strong that it has caused a minor diplomatic incident which the South Korean media did not report. "Since reunions are only for relatives, an elderly South Korean man who wanted to meet a dear childhood friend claimed to be related to him. The 'deception' was eventually discovered but only after the two had already met. The South Korean government even had to apologise for it."
The family reunification process is meticulous and time-consuming. "You have to apply to a commission in the Reunification Ministry," Sister Maria Yim said. "In collaboration with the Red Cross, the commission then submits your application to North Korea which has the final say." The Ministry's selection process employs specific criteria to adjudicate the thousands of applications. "Priority is given to elderly people. This is an especially delicate issue for the families," she adds, "because the authorities must find out whether the relatives are still alive."
Sister Maria relates the story of another South Korean man who had applied for a family reunification visit to North Korea. "I remember he was a priest and had applied for the first family reunion many years ago. But the North Korean government refused his application because he was a Catholic priest."
Patience governs how Seoul organises family reunions because North Korea the last bastion of real communism is reticent in having too many contacts with the outside. According to Ghimb "Pyongyang successfully demanded that reunions take place only in North Korea to prevent its poor and hungry citizens from seeing the material well-being and the political freedom that exist in South Korea" By contrast, North Korea's news agency KCNA reported that "North Korean families and relatives divided by war told their southern counterparts about their blissful and happy life under the care of the Korean Workers' Party."
The latest reunion was difficult in making. According to Sister Maria Yim, many obstacles had to be overcome for the tenth reunion since "Sunday was also the tenth anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's death and we thought Pyongyang would refuse to hold the event on the same day."
KCNA took advantage of the situation and launched a pro-regime propaganda campaign. "Kim-Il Sung defeated two sinister imperialisms, gave power to the people, and led a strong independent socialist state that is self-sufficient in national defence and a light unto the world in creativity and progress . . . Kim Il-Sung will always live in the hearts of mankind as the sun around which Juche [principle of total autonomy, Editor's Note] and the country's prosperity revolve."