Dying network for reuniting Korea's divided families

Dying network for reuniting Korea's divided families
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - Shim Goo-Seob has been organising private, high-risk reunions for divided North and South Korean families for more than two decades, but now he's close to calling time on his secretive work.

Tightened border security and soaring costs have seen the number of unofficial reunions plunge from a high of nearly 300 in 2003 to just 10 last year.

2015 has yet to see a single private meeting take place.

"Border crossings have become far more dangerous and expensive now. Our operations have basically come to a standstill," Shim told AFP.

Millions of family members were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War which cemented the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South.

Most have since died without ever seeing or - given the absence of civilian mail and phone communications - even hearing from relatives on the other side of the border.

The two Koreas organised the first official reunion for separated families in 1985, but that was followed by a 15-year gap before the next gathering was held.

In the interim, some enterprising individuals set up private organisations aimed at getting South Korean families in contact with their relatives in the North and, in some cases, arranging reunions in third countries - mainly China.

In 1990, there were 35 such reunions, and the number had swiftly ballooned to more than 220 by 1993.

Shim was able to get together with his North Korean brother in China in 1994 and four years later set up his own organisation to help others seeking similar meetings.

The work involved establishing an underground network of "helpers" in China and North Korea to help make the initial family-to-family contact, after which work on organising a reunion in China could begin.

Because of tight North Korean restrictions on movement - both internal and external - bribes and forged documents were crucial to getting people out of the country.

"It's basically a question of money because getting relatives safely in and out of North Korea requires a lot of bribes," Shim said.

"It's not unlike a risky espionage operation because both the fixers and the North Korean family members are taking a big personal risk," Shim said, adding that he knew of four helpers who had been caught and jailed in the North.

"But, to my knowledge, no North Korean relatives have been punished for taking part in reunions arranged by my association," he added.

Shim was twice taken into police custody in China, but said he managed to bribe his way out of trouble on both occasions.

For the past 15 years, groups like Shim's have received financial assistance from the South Korean government which officially recognises them.

The state funding now includes 7.0 million won (S$8,480) per family to help them contact their relatives in the North and set up an eventual meeting.

"We have continuously increased that funding over the years ... and will continue to offer assistance," said Ha Moo-Jin, director of the Separated Families Division within the South Korean Unification Ministry.

The majority of private sector reunions take place in safe houses near the Chinese border with North Korea.

"The meetings last several days, which they usually spend huddled inside, sleeping and eating together," Shim said.

Kim Yon-Hee, 89, and her husband spent US$10,000 on setting up a meeting with his North Korean sister in China in 2002.

After flying into a northeastern Chinese city, the couple, guided by one of Shim's helpers, were driven for nine hours on a snowy road to a safe house near the Yalu river where the reunion took place over the following three days.

"I was nervous the whole time, and constantly worried we were all going to be arrested," Kim recalled.

She said her sister-in-law had crossed the river border at night with three other people.

"She did not talk much about her life in the North, but it was clear it had been hard," Kim said.

"Later we sent her a substantial amount of money through channels in China and Japan, but I'm still not sure how much she actually got," she added.

As risky and costly as the private-sector reunions are, they offer the major benefit of allowing the divided families to spend several intimate days in each other's company.

The state-run reunions, by contrast, permit only 12 hours of actual face-to-face time over three days - and most of those meetings are held in a public venue with North Korean monitors.

Shim says the official reunions, which began in earnest in 2000 after an historic North-South summit, have become a "political show" with no real respect for the emotions of the elderly participants.

But the private-sector reunions have also changed in terms of risk, frequency and cost.

In the "sunshine" years after the summit, several hundred were organised every year, but that figure was reduced to dozens as cross-border relations began to sour in 2008.

After Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011, North Korea tightened security on its China border, and the annual number of private reunions dwindled into single figures.

"It takes so much more to bribe the guards, and ordinary families really can't afford the total expense of arranging the meeting," Shim said.

"Things are also harder on the Chinese side, with much tighter surveillance.

"That means a lot of ethnic Koreans in the border area who used to help us, won't do so anymore," he added.

But probably the biggest factor behind the slump in private reunions is the dwindling number of South Koreans actually asking for them.

"The old ones, the ones with brothers and sisters, are simply dying out," Shim said.

"It's sad to say, but I think in another 10 years or so, the issue of separated families will have largely faded out."

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