Some 1,200 South Koreans from separated families have died in the first quarter of the year

The number of South Koreans waiting to meet northern relatives is decreasing rapidly. In 1988 there were more than 131,000; now there are 61,000, 43 per cent over 80, and 19.4 per cent over 90.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – More than 1,200 South Korean members of families separated by the intra-Korean border since the 1950-53 war died in the first quarter of this year, South Korean government data showed Wednesday.

Since the end of hostilities, countless families have been split, unable to meet. Eventually, the two Koreas organised family reunions as a good will gesture.

The last one took place in October 2015 at a resort on Mount Kumgang on North Korea's east coast. The practice was suspended amid tensions in inter-Korean ties.

Since 1988, South Korean authorities have tallied the number of separated family members. A total of 131,172 separated family members have registered on the waiting list for family reunions with their kin in North Korea.

Since then, about 53 per cent of those on the list have passed away as of the end of March, including 3,378 in 2016, this according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Given rising tensions between the United States and North Korea, and their repercussions on intra-Korean relations, it is likely that family reunions will not be on the agenda for the foreseeable future, leaving an increasingly smaller group warily waiting.

Unification Ministry data indicate that 62 per cent of the 61,322 surviving family members are aged over 80: 43 per cent aged 80 to 89 and 19.4 per cent over 90.

This means that many will die before North and South Korean authorities allow family reunions again. Technically, the two states are still at war since they have not signed a peace treaty.

Overall, some 20 family reunions have taken place, and many families who are waiting for their turn are losing hope.

Such meetings began in 1985. To take part, South Koreans must demonstrate that they have still living relatives in North Korea and must register with the Unification Ministry. They are chosen by lottery. Little is known as to how North Korea picks family members.

A survey in 2016 by Seoul's Unification Ministry found that almost eight out of ten South Korean separated families said that the top priority should be placed on confirming whether their family members in North Korea are still alive or not.