Separated Korean families say farewell. Photo courtesy UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR).
A United Nation human rights expert on North Korea has backed proposals to resume family reunions for people separated since the 1950-1953 war, stressing that time is running out for many elderly relatives.
Thousands of families have been separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War through displacement, forced disappearance and abductions, and as a result of those fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It is estimated that over one million and up to five million Koreans moved north or south during the war, leaving their families behind, and up to 100,000 were forcibly disappeared. Of these, less than 2,000 were able to receive information on their lost relatives or to see them in person, as of October 2015.
“There have not been any reunions since October 2015, and thousands of people are still desperate to connect with their loved ones or at least to know what happened to them,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.
Members of South Korea’s National Assembly announced plans on June 5th for a draft resolution to resume family reunion events in August. The debate is likely to create divisions within the assembly, as Pyongyang continues to carry out ballistic missile launches despite strong warnings by its neighbors and the international community.
The issue is also likely to be dogged by tensions over a group of North Korean restaurant workers who were resettled in Seoul last year, and whose return the DPRK has demanded as a precondition to further talks on family reunions.
Ojea Quintana said: “I welcome the proposal to organize reunions in August. Considering the ages of the family members concerned, and the plight they continue to suffer in old age, all political considerations must be removed. The reunions should be able to go ahead without conditions, to alleviate people’s suffering. This is a matter of absolute urgency that should not divide opinion.”
Nearly 130,000 people in the Republic of Korea (ROK) have registered since 1953 to be reunited with family members in the North, but more than half have died without knowing the whereabouts of their relatives, and the majority of those still alive are over 80.
New South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on May 9th, pledged during his election campaign to restore links between separated relatives. His administration has already taken steps to promote dialogue with Pyongyang, including the resumption of joint preventive activities to fight malaria in the North.
Ojea Quintana says the moment is ripe for the two countries to restart dialogue on separated families.
“There is a window of opportunity to discuss reunions as part of the wider outreach initiative by the Republic of Korea, and it should not be missed,” the Special Rapporteur said. “If the two countries can agree on conducting joint humanitarian activities, this is also their chance to respond to the reunion appeal made by the victims.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee says in their report Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families that separation has had a devastating effect on family relations since the Korean War. The continuing legacy of war division and the advanced age of most victims call for urgent attention for a prompt resolution of this problem. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months, with victims’ groups in the Republic of Korea calling for the international community’s support to help them to restore contact with their relatives in the DPRK.
The emergence of a collectivist political system in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s, following the retreat of Japanese troops, led to hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing to the south. A second wave of displacement occurred in the early 1950s, as North Korean forces, backed up by China and the Soviet Union, confronted South Korean troops who were aided by forces under the UN command consisting of 16 countries.
The Armistice Agreement of 1953 sealed the border between the two Koreas along the current ceasefire line, leaving relatives trapped on each side of the border. Since 1953, it is estimated that 129,616 individuals in the ROK have registered for reunion with their families in the DPRK. Whereas 2,325 families were able to meet their missing relatives at least once since the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, more than half of these applicants passed away without being given a chance to restore contact. At the end of February 2016, the list of candidates for reunion in the ROK contained 64,916 names of living victims. Around 55.3 percent of survivors are above the age of 80.
The story of Ms. Park Dong-yeol, 85 years old, provides an illustration of the exacerbation of discrimination faced by women in the enjoyment of economic and social rights as a result of involuntary separation. Ms. Park fled her hometown in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province in December 1950. She was a second-year medical student at that time and wanted to pursue her studies in South Korea as her medical institute closed during the war. She was not allowed to board a boat for Busan where about 100 men from her extended family embarked because “it was commonly accepted that the presence of a woman on a boat would curse it”. Thus, she made her own way to South Korea by foot and joined the men in Busan as she had no other relatives to rely on. She was unable to continue her studies due to her deteriorating economic situation and was instead employed as a domestic worker and newspaper vendor.
Park Dong-yeol’s status as a single woman in a community of men – most of whom married in the ROK after the Armistice Agreement was signed – forced her to leave the community in Busan and seek employment in Seoul. There, being a single woman with no family ties raised the suspicion of the authorities that she could be a North Korean spy. In 1956, she was detained by police and intelligence officers and tortured, then released and kept under close police scrutiny. In her words: “I worried that I would be arrested again if I did not marry, so I married at the age of 27 after I had lost hope of returning to my family in North Korea”. It was only when she married that social and political pressure on her decreased a little, but she remained economically marginalized and estranged from her extended family for decades because of her North Korean origins.
The impact of surveillance on separated families is perceptible in the story of 88-year-old Ms. Ji Eungyeong, who took part in the latest family reunion event in October 2015. She was selected to meet a daughter whom she had left behind as a baby in 1951, and a granddaughter. Despite the impeccable organization, the family’s right to privacy was not respected due to the presence of North Korean monitors on one side and South Korean journalists on the other. Ms. Ji said that her daughter was only able to cry and speak to her without fear during the two hours they were allowed to meet in a private room. Although Ms. Ji hoped her daughter and granddaughter could stay in touch with her after the event and inform her of developments regarding the fate of other relatives in the North, she has not been able to converse with them since the reunion.
In 2015, 1,275 escapees from the DPRK – 80 per cent of whom are women – arrived in the ROK. Whereas the overall number of escapees has reportedly consistently decreased since 2008 due to stringent border patrols in the DPRK, 43 women continue to form the majority of escapees. This may be explained by the fact that women have more access to informal trading and smuggling routes with China than men, who are assigned to government work. Families are in many cases forced to split up during the escape journey as people usually cross the border individually rather than in groups to avoid being noticed by the authorities. A woman who escaped in 2013 told the United Nations: “I did not tell my parents that I was planning to escape. They would have never let me do it because they would know that they would never see me again. I am their only child”.
These experiences show that even though family separation has taken new forms since the Korean War, its root causes remain connected. The structural forms of violence, discrimination and impunity that are at play weaken the fabric of the family, diminish people’s sense of personal security, and push them to split from their next-of-kin and seek safety outside the DPRK. It is noticeable that young people, who constitute the vast majority of escapees today, were also the main victims of forced displacement 65 years ago. In both cases young people were pushed to flee because they found themselves in a situation of structural vulnerability limiting the enjoyment of their rights, such as the right liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and conscience, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living.
The responsibility to protect human rights primarily rests with the Governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and of the Republic of Korea. More efforts are required to determine responsibilities for cases of involuntary separation.
The legacy of systematic human rights violations of the Korean War must be addressed and perpetrators identified in order to end impunity and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation. This effort should seek to realize the rights of victims to reparations and to know the truth about violations, as well as to provide guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations in accordance with international law.
The recent rise in political and military tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to impede progress in the dialogue regarding family reunions. In 2016 two nuclear tests were reportedly conducted and several missiles reportedly launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of the Korea. According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the organisation of joint military exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea has led to the suspension of family reunion events. As rising tensions reduce the chance of addressing the problem of family separation proactively as a common priority, victims risk being further marginalized.
“The emotional, psychological, social, and economic toll of involuntary separation persists to this day, as people continue to search for the truth and for contact with their loved ones,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.