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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Seokyong Lee -- Black Star for Asiaweek
Middleman: Reunion agency chief Cho says that applications have been pouring in. But "time is running short," as elderly Koreans are dying off

Hopes For Family Reunions
Pyongyang may give the emotive issue a fillip
By JOHN LARKIN Seoul

The old man shuts his eyes to summon a memory of his mother. It was 1947, the day before he left North Korea to study in Seoul. "She spent her dowry on five small rice cakes," he recalls. "They lasted me the four-day journey. She thought I would be back soon." Lee never returned to his hometown near the Chinese border. War between North and South Korea erupted in 1950 and raged for three years. Lee, who like many North Korean-born southerners does not want his full name publicized for fear of reprisals against relatives, has confirmed that his sister and brother are alive in the North. But that's all. Over the years, his letters have gone unanswered. Like most of the 1.2 million first-generation North Koreans in the South, the 73-year-old retired school principal must wait for scraps of information about his lost kin.

Nearly 7.7 million southerners have family over the border. Only recently have they been able to arrange secretive meetings with their relatives, usually in China. Many exchange letters through the same channels. Now there is hope that Pyongyang will finally help. Family reunions are expected to be near the top of the agenda at the coming summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his Northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il.

The breakthrough may have come just in time. Elderly North-born Koreans are dying off on both sides of the border, especially in the North, where famine has reportedly taken a savage toll. "Time is running short," says Cho Dong Young, a North Korean who heads the Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten Million Separated Families (KARTS), one of many agencies of its kind in the South. Though a handful of clans were reunited in 1985, attempts at further reunions have failed. With hopes rising again, applications for meetings have flooded into KARTS.

To date, finding lost relatives has been a costly and sometimes dangerous business. Agencies send name lists to middlemen in China, who relay them to contacts in North Korea. Merely confirming the existence of a relative can cost up to $700. Setting up a meeting, usually in China, may require as much as $8,000. Northern contacts are often party officials who take risks for hard currency, scouring the country for their quarry. Contacts are also arranged through independent brokers and ethnic Koreans in China. There have been 54 reunions this year, as of May, and 390 letters exchanged. Sometimes, shady brokers just run off with the money.

The process may become much smoother if North Korea comes to the party. Agencies could send their lists directly to Pyongyang via e-mail, cutting out the China connection. Phone calls and letters can be risky as Beijing has cracked down on what is becoming a lucrative cottage industry. "The North Korean government could act as a reunion agency," says Kim Hyun Doo of the South's Unification Ministry. "After all, it knows very well where all its people are." Even so, the process would still be costly. Seoul recently boosted subsidies for family reunions. It knows that each successful case boosts public confidence in its controversial policy of peaceful engagement with the North.

The summit is a direct result of that policy. "Without the summit, reunions would fall through," says Chung Young Chul, head of the Union Community, a new agency. Divided families are signing up in droves through its Internet homepage, excited by another breakthrough: Union has obtained permission to wire application money from South Korea's Hanvit Bank to a bank in Pyongyang, which would cut much red tape. "I recently visited North Korea and saw a positive change in their attitude," says Chung. "They want speedy family reunions too."

Much depends on how far Pyongyang is ready to go. The South Korean government is pushing for a permanent facility at the border village of Panmunjom where divided families can meet, or at least find out more about their relatives. Families want regular letter exchanges and hometown visits. But the North can be unpredictable. It could make unrealistic demands at the summit, or make reunions subordinate to forms of cooperation that can fill its drained coffers more quickly.

Even if the reunions happen, the numbers will still be limited. Lee wants to ask his brother and sister when and where their parents died. "Only then can I hold a proper burial ceremony for them," he says. Cho believes authorities should ensure that older people like Lee should be first in the queue. For all divided families, the process will be a heart-wrenching lottery to determine who gets to see their kin again. Says Cho: "To use a Korean expression, it's like plucking a star out of the sky."

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