Thu, Aug 23, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Genuine talk elusive at teary Korean reunions


South Korean Cho Hye-do, 86, left, talks with her North Korean sister Cho Sun-do, 89, at the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea yesterday.

Photo: AP

A mother wails as she embraces a son she has not seen since the Korean War. A woman weeps as she greets a grandfather she never got to know.

The scenes of Koreans meeting this week, likely for the last time before they die, are heartbreaking, but they often belie a highly political and tightly controlled event, in which participants often struggle to have genuine conversations.

Much of the awkwardness centers on the defining fact of the Korean Peninsula: For decades it has been divided between the authoritarian North, originally backed by the Soviet Union and then, during the war, by the People’s Republic of China, and the US-backed capitalist South.

Citizens from both nations, especially the elderly who remember the bitterness and bloodshed of the war, often wear their nationalism on their sleeves, and some South Koreans have complained that their relatives take every chance to score propaganda points for their authoritarian nation.

About 200 South Koreans and their family members on Monday crossed the border for three days of meetings with their North Korean relatives.

The relatives have been given a total of 12 hours together, including three hours in private. Another 337 South Koreans and accompanying family members are to participate in a second round of reunions from tomorrow to Sunday.

After the initial tears at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort, Cha Jae-geun, an 84-year-old South Korean, and his 50-year-old North Korean nephew on Monday began an awkward exchange over international politics surrounding the peninsula and the origins of the war that split their family apart, and killed and injured millions.

The Koreas should “drive the American bastards out,” Cha Song-il, the nephew, said, according to South Korean media pool reports.

He accused the US of being unfaithful to the commitments of a June summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, in which they expressed an aspirational goal for a nuclear-free peninsula without describing when or how it would occur.

The elder Cha reminded his nephew that it was North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader, who triggered the war by ordering a sneak attack on the South in June 1950.

“That’s a lie,” the nephew replied, waving both hands. “The Korean War was something the Americans did. We fought against [our enemies] with our own strength.”

Cha Jae-geun smiled and quickly changed the subject, as South Korean officials urge their reunion participants to do if politics come up.

The South Korean government instructs participants not to criticize the North’s leadership and economy during the reunions.

Some North Korean participants, who are reportedly chosen for the reunions based on their loyalty to their authoritarian rulers, were eager to show their government commendations to their South Korean relatives.

In at least once case, this resulted in another awkward exchange.

Ju Yong-ae, a 52-year-old North Korean who came to meet her 86-year-old South Korean aunt, steadfastly refused when a South Korean official who had come to the North to help manage the meeting repeatedly asked her to put her “Kim Il-sung commendation,” a public service medal, below the table.

“How can you put down our supreme dignity?” Ju asked.

A North Korean official intervened, telling the South Korean official: “She’s just trying to show it to her family; leave her alone.”

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