Yoon is unlikely to reunite divided Korean families
Posted on October 21, 2022
Ahead of the Chuseok holiday last month, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said South Korea was interested in negotiating with North Korea on holding another round of family reunions. inter-Korean. The urgency of the issue has only increased since the last time they took place, in 2018. In his remarks at a government press conference, Minister Kwon noted that 400 people in the South had died this month without having reconnected with their relatives in the North. . “Holding a one-time meeting with a small number of people as in the past is not enough”, he said. “[We] must solve the problem before the word “separated family” disappears. he added. Experts say that despite the Yoon government’s best efforts, it will likely have difficulty engaging North Korea on this issue.
As is often the case, North Korea’s tight control over information in the name of regime security remains a significant obstacle. “The risk from the North Korean perspective is that relatives find out what’s going on outside, and the North is paranoid about keeping it under control,” said Ambassador Robert King, who served as the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. under the Obama administration. He said the North only allows families to attend family gatherings after government indoctrination, and also deploys government guards to listen. “North Koreans clearly see that the benefits of these things are very limited from their perspective,” he said.
The first inter-Korean family reunion is an instructive example. After South Korea experienced severe flooding in 1984, Seoul accepted humanitarian aid from the North. The president of the South Korean Red Cross at the time, Yu Chang-sun, said that he hoped it would lead to “genuine mutual help among compatriots…and improved relations between North and South Korea”. write for 38 North in 2020, Dr. James Foley said the delivery kicked off negotiations between the two Koreas’ respective Red Cross committees, resulting in 50 South Koreans traveling to Pyongyang and 50 North Koreans to travel to Seoul. Warming inter-Korean relations would continue until joint US-South Korean military exercises in 1986. But rapprochement has to start somewhere, says Scott Snyder, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Under the current circumstances, I would say that the general atmosphere between the two Koreas is unfavorable for cooperation,” he said. “But the offer itself…provides North Koreans with an affordable opportunity to change policy if they wish.”
Breaking the deadlock in inter-Korean relations is key to realizing another round of family reunions. Not only was the proposal from the South met the silencethe North more broadly vehemently rejected the Yoon administration’s North Korean policy, described as a “bold initiative”. Dr. Gregg Brazinsky, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said even the progressive Moon Jae-in administration was struggling to engage North Korea near the end of its term. “Conservative governments have more constraints in their relationship with North Korea, so the range of things they could offer is actually smaller,” he said. What Pyongyang really wants, such as a reduction in security cooperation with the Americans, would run counter to the wishes of conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol’s grassroots. “I think what Yoon could potentially offer in exchange for discussing the topic is quite limited,” Dr. Brazinsky said.
Other experts said South Korea should think carefully about what it offers North Korea. In his words, Minister Kwon said the government is “ready to do whatever it takes to ease the pain of division anytime, anywhere, in any way possible.” Olivia Enos, a Washington-based Asia policy analyst, said the language was alarming given the reluctance of the North. “It worries me because Pyongyang will only extract financial gain or other diplomatic means potentially beneficial to the regime,” she said. “He never puts families first.”
The language used by Minister Kwon can also be interpreted to mean that South Korea has no preconditions for talks, a position taken by the Americans, who also want to engage the North Koreans. Still, Ms. Enos says she is cautious about engaging with North Korea, given its past behavior. “Maybe there are temporary changes, but very rarely there are permanent changes that lead to a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Asia,” she said.
Even if North Korea resists holding face-to-face meetings, there are other options available in Seoul. The pandemic has greatly normalized the holding of virtual events, and in 2019 the United Nations granted the North a waiver of sanctions import the necessary material. The South could also work with international organizations operating in the North to simply confirm details about the survival of divided families. “The South Korean government should consider what can be done to facilitate the unilateral closure of elderly South Korean split families,” said Paul Lee, an advocate for the reunification of split families worldwide. “I think confirming whether their loved ones are dead or not is what most of the divided families interviewed want to know at this point.”
The passage of time is putting its own pressure on the South Korean government. “The issue will lose its political relevance [in South Korea] because it has already been 72 years since the Korean War started,” Dr. Brazinsky said. Key members of split families pass away, leaving people with increasingly weak relationships with the people of the North. As a result, future South Korean governments may be inclined to lower the priority of solving this problem. “There are families that have been split up and still really want to see each other,” Dr. Brazinsky said, “but the numbers are going down and the numbers are important in politics.” Ambassador King said running out of clocks over Seoul is to Pyongyang’s advantage. “Just stretching it out is a win for the North,” he said. “There is no incentive to move forward and make progress.”
While their numbers may dwindle and face significant obstacles, the Yoon administration should not give up on reuniting divided families on the Korean peninsula. “The need to be seen and to be loved is inherent in every human being, but these families have been separated and denied this. It is heartbreaking,” Ms Enos said. Seoul should impress on Pyongyang that the move on these types of humanitarian issues can help create an environment capable of resolving the most contentious issues.” If the North Koreans are not even willing to cooperate in facilitating a short-term humanitarian exchange issue that has political significance like this in South Korea,” Mr. Snyder said, “so what hope should there be for anything more in the inter-Korean relationship?
Terrence Matsuo is a non-resident scholar at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
Photo from KTV blog on Naver.