Bittersweet reunions

NORTH KOREA - Two nights and three days was too short a time for the families reuniting for the first time after more than six decades of separation. But that was all that was granted to the 80 elderly South Koreans and their 180 relatives from North Korea who gathered at a mountain resort in the North last week.

The reunions were bittersweet. The separated families from the two sides were delighted to reunite after so many years of separation. But the moments of joy were too short. They had to bid farewell to each other before they could pour their hearts out and reconnect their severed ties.

Yet they were the lucky ones. They were chosen for the reunions from among tens of thousands of applicants.

According to government data, more than 129,200 South Koreans have applied for reunions with their family members and relatives in North Korea since 1988.

Among them, more than 57,700 people, or 44.7 per cent of the total, have already died before being given a chance. The government says an average of 3,800 applicants have died each year since 2003.

The number of the surviving applicants is to diminish even more rapidly as more than half of them are in their 80s and 90s.

But reunions have not been frequent enough. The latest one, which will end on Feb. 25 after the second round of three-day reunions, is the first in more than three years. Since 2000, there have been a total of 19 inter-Korean family reunions, with only a few hundred people chosen each time.

This suggests that a new approach is needed to ensure that the surviving applicants meet their relatives at least once. It was in this context that President Park Geun-hye called for fundamental measures to allow separated families of the two Koreas to meet more frequently.

The South is expected to propose that the two Koreas hold reunions regularly and more frequently in the future. But the North's top priority is to resume the Mount Geumgangsan tour programme, which was suspended in July 2008 after a Seoul tourist to the mountain resort was shot to death by a North Korean soldier.

To get the tour programme restarted, the North should guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists. But before talking about the tour programme, it should approach family reunions from a humanitarian perspective and take steps to allow separated families to meet more frequently. This is how it can gain confidence from the South.