Their agreement restarts what is perhaps the peninsula’s most important humanitarian program, allowing brief but emotional get-togethers for relatives who live on opposite sides of the heavily militarized border. Officials in Seoul have said the reunions are particularly urgent, given that most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s. As part of Friday’s agreement, the two countries also said they will hold meet-ups in October by video teleconference, a more suitable method for those too frail to travel.
In the South, some 73,000 people are on the waiting list to meet with relatives in the North. But the reunions have been on hold since late 2010, a casualty of a period in which the two nations cut nearly all ties, with the South imposing bans on cross-border visits and new investment in the North.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, in office for six months, is trying to slowly rebuild ties after what she describes as a “trust-building” strategy — undertaking small cooperation projects, with bigger ones to follow if Pyongyang proves itself reliable.
On Aug. 14, the North and South said they would work toward reopening a jointly operated industrial complex, shuttered since April, at which small and medium-size South Korean companies use the cheap labor of 53,000 North Koreans. A day later, Park said she wanted to work with the North to resume the reunions.
“We have to ease the pains of separated families,” Park said.
In the years before and during the Korean War, millions of people moved from one country to the other. A 1953 armistice ended the war but also created a near-impermeable border along the 38th parallel. These days, South Koreans have almost no means of staying in touch with long-lost family members in the North, as they are barred from placing telephone calls or sending mail.
Since 2000, the North and South have held 18 reunions for more than 20,000 people.
This latest round coincides with North Korea urging the restart of regular tours to scenic Mount Kumgang — and not just for reunions. South Korean tourists were able to visit the area until 2008, when a South Korean visitor strayed into an off-limits zone and was shot by a North Korean guard.
The South’s Ministry of Unification proposed this week that talks about Mount Kumgang tours be held Sept. 25.