Seoul – June 2008
“Last October I saw my father, after I believed he was dead for over half a century. But the real tragedy is that I’ll never see him again” tells us Nan Sik Min with rheumy eyes. He is one of the many South-Koreans to have played the cruel lottery of split families. It’s that one which decides who can run into their loved one trapped in North Korea, the last Stalinist stronghold on Earth.
A wheel of fortune where the winners lose at the same time. The prize is a single opportunity to be reunited with parents, siblings, consorts and leave them again.
The often fruitless waiting on their turn, the emotion of ending up, the illusion of a life still together, the final farewell; it seems a movie plot. It is a real life drama that has been on going for 55 years. Since the Korea war, frozen but still unresolved, broke in half the country and 8 million families life.
The separation of pro-Soviet North (today pro-China) and pro-USA South is a cold war chapter only narrated in the school books anymore.
The tragedy born out of for Min Nan Sik and many other is current news; the Korean case to negotiations on de-nuclearization recently concluded with the cancellation of Pyongyang dictators from the Washington Enemies List. Many personal stories that tied together tell the bigger one about a nation hurt from a difficult reconciliation. Over recent month the process came into at a standstill for the confrontational approach between the new South-Korean President, the conservator Lee Myung-Bak and the Kim Jong II dictator, son of the legendary communist leader Kim II-Sung.
The “hearts bingo”
“Every gathering can participate a member of a North and one of South for family” explains us Yun-Kyeong Han from the South-Korean Red Cross (KNRC) that, with the North-Korean counterparty NKRC, coordinates inter-families contacts initiated in 1985. “Every time we extract straws the 100 families, namely 200 family 200 members in total which may come together ”
The excluded stay home hoping for a call, letter or visit and settling for a video call begging to know if their relatives are still alive.
A “heart bingo” imposed by the Korean refusal to improve the frequency and the extent of meetings. A cycle of 16 official meetings, initially happened in the capitals Pyongyang and Seoul, has allowed until today less than 3.400 families (for a total of 16,212 individuals) to ending up for a few days. The historical defusing agreement of the 15th June 2000 multiplied the gatherings. But not enough to satisfy all 127.000 required registered until last January from the Integrated Information Centre on split families.
Many die unable to see their loved ones, more than 35.000 applicants (28% of the total) have already died.
Entire life in just four days
Meeting between parents and children have become rare. “Fortunately my father lived to 85 years” says us Nam Sik. She has taken the 4 hours trek by bus to the Geumgang mount, the sacred summit in North Korea, close to armistice line along the famous 38° parallel countless times. Here on the 12 July was completed the Permanent Center for split families reunions.
“It should have been inaugurate on 15th August, with a big reunion of 1000 people on the occasion of the common anniversary of the liberation from Japanese occupation” reveals Boonhee Jeong, vice-director of Department “Split Families” of the Unification Minister. But the actual tension between the two governments blew it.
“When I saw my father coming to my numbered table I didn’t recognize him straight away, when he disappeared I was just 10 months, I didn’t even remember if I had ever called him dad”, continues Nan Sik who is 57 year old married with two sons. “We spent almost the all four days of the meeting holding our hands and crying together, we didn’t want to dig up the past, but just express the joy of meeting all together again. We said goodbye aware that probably we will never meet again, even if he promised to live until the Korea will be reunified ”.
The mirage of reunification
Promise that Nan Sik and all his peers are at risk of taking it to their graves. The gap between the authoritarian and blackwater North and the democratic and super-technological South is huge.The most optimistic figures estimate that it will take the next thirty years to be reunified. During this period direct family relations can be expected to disappear. The 75% of citizens still alive are over the age of 70 and according to the recent census, from 1976 split families have been reduced to little more than 700.000 (1/11 of the starting number).
“Only South-Koreans who have close relatives in the North really want the unification (word preferred by the local that consider themselves a unified country)”, says Kang In Sook who met his brother in law for the first time last March. ” Already our children (the third generation) are not really interested in that”. Who will remain to weep for joy when the last “iron curtain” of the planet will be cut off? One day, the Korean peninsula could become one state, populated by strangers.
It is the spectrum against which the movement of Ae-Ran Lee, the last of 12.000 North-Korean to be nominated (but not elected) for the legislative elections of last April in the South is fighting. “Our government has to seriously commit to strengthening relationships between South and North-Korean relatives”Ae-Ran says. She escaped in 1994, leaving her husband behind that has since remarried. She met her uncles and aunts and her grandfather who live in the USA.
Approximately 1441 families have found themselves in third countries through private intermediaries and a governance check of 2000 euro.Very few have reunified in the South thanks to the escape of their members from the North, like the brave Ok-Hee Hong.
What remains is to peer over the horizon of Seoul’s skyscrapers, crossing with the mind the 4 Km of the separation line in order to feel every day their dears so close and so distant.
Box – History of fractured people
The division between North and South is the result of the Second World War (that in 1945 divided the country into two spheres of influence USA and URSS along the 38 parallel, formalised by the creation in 1948 of two independent governments) and during the Korea War. The latter broke out in 1950 when the North-Korean Communist regime invaded South Korea and that determines a quick response from ONU: under its mandate the United States, supported by 17 countries, act militarily to
save the occupied country and, possibly, overthrow the North-Korean governments.
After the delayed North-Korean advance, the ONU troops broke through and in a short amount of time went back until the 38 parallel and then deeply seeped in the North. While Soviet Union was supporting the Communist regime, China took part to the battles sending to Korea on 8th October 1950 more than 180.000 soldiers that in a short time chased the ONU troops under the 38th parallel.
In 1951 the American President Harry S. Truman, fearing the degeneration in a nuclear war, began the negotiations in order to end the conflict. These have been concluded on 27th July 1953 with the signature in Panmunjeom of an armistice which basically reestablished the previous situation.
Still today the popular Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South), separated by a demilitarized zone (DMZ) 4 Km wide, are technically in a constant state of belligerency without a peace treaty. The estimated death toll is nearly 2 million. The American army (1.319.000 men) had 54.246 dead and 105.785 injured, the South-Korean had 415.000 dead and 429.000 injured, the Chinese 145.000 dead and 260.000 injured, the North-Korean between 200.000 and 400.000. 1.500.000 people died, of which 1 million North-Korean and 500.000 South-Korean.