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Korea's Separated Families Updated: 2011-08-12 00:00:00 KST

The Korean War began in 1950 and tore apart the Korean peninsula for three years.

The war caused unbelievable damage and killed thousands, but the most lasting injury was inflicted upon separated families.

[Interview : Yang Mu-jin, Professor
University of North Korean Studies] "Separated families remain a social issue because they are the scars of the Korean War. Separated families are the symbols of division on the Korean peninsula and the scars of war."

After the war, family members who were in the South were able to find each other with the help of personal networks and the media, but those whose family members were lost in the North could not even confirm whether they were alive.

People continued to shed tears over the hopeless situation.

Separated families became part of a sad history.

[Interview : Choi Su-won, Seoul resident
] "You miss your family even if you're apart for just a little while. Family members who are separated must be so sad, and miss each other so much."

Recently, the U.S. announced that it would work with North Korea to reunite separated family members in the two countries.

However, family reunions between the two Koreas are still facing obstacles.

The first inter-Korean family reunions happened not so long ago.

[Interview : Yang Mu-jin, Professor
University of North Korean Studies
] "Discussions of reuniting separated families began during the inter-Korean Red Cross talks in 1971, but at that time the discussions ended after a long debate about the definition of separated families. Then, in 2000, separated families were able to visit each other three or four times a year through the inter-Korean summit talks."

In the late 1990s, South Korea adopted the so-called "sunshine policy," a diplomatic strategy of peace and engagement towards the North.

This diplomacy lead to the historic first reunion on August 15, 2000.

Between then and October 2010, about 2000 members of families separated by the DMZ were able to reunite through 18 meetings and 7 video conferences.

[Interview : ] "My wish was to return to my hometown before I died, but it won't happen."

[Interview : ] "I can't believe this is real. If I can't believe this is real, it probably doesn't feel real for you either, Mother."

[Interview : ] "Please be well. We'll be together again when Korea is reunited."

But not everyone can enjoy this kind of luck. There are still many families separated by the inter-Korean border who are waiting to reunite.

[Interview : Kim Gyeong-jae, Displaced person] "The entire nation became excited while watching separated families reunite. I was excited. The scene on TV stayed vivid in my mind for a few days. I was envious of the families who reunited."

[Interview : Moon Yong-chun, Displaced person] "I miss them so much. It hurts that I can't meet them. I don't even know if they're dead or alive, and that always hurts."

The reunions are granted to those chosen through a lottery. Since the reunions are strictly limited in size, the number of people who are reunited with their families is far less than the number of those waiting.

[Interview : Heo Jeong-gu, Division of Inter-Korean Exchange
Korean Red Cross
] "Currently 127,000 people are registered with the Integrated Information System for Separated Families hoping to be reunited with their family members in the North. Excluding those who have died, the number of applicants still waiting to be reunited is at about 87,500."

Another issue is that the people who were separated in the war are growing older. 80% of registered separated family members are over 70, and every year, 3,000 of these applicants pass away.

There is not much time left.

[Interview : Lee Sang-cheol, Chairman] "Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten-Million Separated Families Over the last decade, about 48,000 applicants for reunion have passed away, so only about 80,000 applicants remain. The worry is that the remaining applicants are also aging rapidly, so we do not have much time to reunite them with their families."

After the Korean war, a new kind of separated family also came into being - North Korean families separated by defection.

[Interview : Kim Nam-jun, Staff member
Ministry of Public Administration and Security] For North Korean defectors, it's even harder to find their families remaining in the North. In a lot of cases, the families aren't even aware that their family members have defected. Even if the families are found, the revelation of the defectors' identities may put their families in danger.

The government has rolled up its sleeves to help resolve this issue. The South Korean government has pledged to do all that it can to help reunite separated families.

[Interview : Oh Chung-seok, Head of Separated Families Division
Ministry of Unification
] "South Korea passed a law in 2009 making it an official responsibility of the government to help separated families confirm the life or death of their family members in the North, as well as pursue reunion. When inter-Korean relations allow it, we hope to push ahead with reunions at meeting places for separated families."

Technology is also used to help bring families together. Video reunion centers are installed in 5 locations in South Korea and 10 in the North. Those who have had trouble moving around can now meet their families via the Internet.

[Interview : ] "Let me officially say hello."

[Interview : ] "I wouldn't recognize you if I saw you on the street."

However, the fundamental way to ease these families' pain is reunification.

[Interview : Jeong Seung-il, Displaced person] "My wish is to return to my hometown, pay my respects at the graves of my family members there, and meet the rest of my family just once before I die."

There still remain many people in both North and South Korea who spend their days, longing for their loved ones across the border.

We hope for the day when all of these families will be reunited together again, as part of a reunified Korea.


The use of technology is such a great idea.
At least that is something if a real life meeting can't take place.
Well let's hope more of these people get their final wishes before they pass away.
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