For Kang Neung Hwan, a 92-year-old retired salesman from Seoul, the chance of seeing his son for the first time depends on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Kang is the oldest of 100 South Koreans chosen by lottery to see relatives left behind almost 61 years after the war cemented the division of the two countries. The reunions, last held in 2010, begin Feb. 20 if the North keeps its commitment.
“I can’t think of anything better that could happen in my life,” Kang said as he gazed at a basket of gifts -– vitamins, socks, underwear, toothpaste and cough medicine -- he prepared for his 62–year-old son. He only learned the wife he left behind was pregnant when he applied last year for a slot in the reunions to see a sister who has since died.
The reunions mark the most significant step in improved ties in the year since the Kim regime threatened a nuclear strike against Seoul. The North has routinely used the visits as a bargaining chip, and Kim is trying to link future reunions to reviving a tourist resort that generated hundreds of millions of dollars for his cash-strapped country.
“Reunions are the North’s feelers for any political concessions from the South,” said Kim Soo Am, a researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “Family reunions are as much a political issue as they are a humanitarian one between these two countries.”
There are signs that the reunions may lead to a further thaw in relations. The two countries announced last night that they would hold the first high-level talks in more than six years today inside the heavily armed demilitarized zone. The discussion on an unspecified range of issues began at about 10:00 a.m., the Unification Ministry said in text messages. It didn’t say if the future of Mount Geumgang tourism was on the agenda.
The influx of hundreds of people to Mount Geumgang for the family reunions will briefly breathe life into a resort that attracted almost 2 million South Koreans before tours were suspended in 2008 when a North Korean soldier fatally shot a guest. Kim called for the tours to Mount Geumgang to be restarted on Jan. 24, when he offered to renew reunions.
The joint tours were the brainchild of Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Yung, a refugee from the North who spent much of his career promoting reconciliation. He set up the Hyundai Asan Corp. to boost cooperation with the North and initially agreed to pay Pyongyang almost $1 billion to develop Geumgang.
Hyundai has so far paid about half of that amount on top of its $210 million investment in building the resort at Geumgang, which means “diamond” in Korean. The tours would have generated an additional $670 million in sales had they not stopped, Hyundai said today in an e-mail.
Shares in Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., the biggest shareholder in Hyundai Asan, have gained 22 percent since Jan. 24.
Kim Jong Un has played politics with the planned reunions, demanding that the U.S. and South Korea cancel annual military drills due to start Feb. 24. He canceled scheduled reunions in September four days before their start, accusing the South of putting up “obstacles to reconciliation.”
The aging survivors can be caught up in the politics between the two countries that technically remain in a state of war. Koreans are barred from communicating with relatives on either side, so reunion participants know the visit will probably be their only chance for contact with their loved ones.
“These people can’t wait much longer, because most of them are weak and old, and their sorrow has been smoldered in their hearts from the 60 years of longing,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye said on Jan. 27.
Nearly 130,000 South Koreans have applied for reunions since 1988, and about 57,000 of those have died, according to the Unification Ministry. More than half the remainder are over the age of 80.
In September, a 91-year-old South Korean man set to join the planned reunions died less than a week before he was due to see his family. That was the visit that Kim canceled.
Yu Seon Bi, 80, was chosen last year through two rounds of computer lottery to be reunited with her sister and brother. Yu had better chances in the draw because bids are weighted in favor of the dwindling number of Koreans with direct family members, rather than cousins or nieces and nephews.
During a visit by a Red Cross official to her home to discuss the trip, Yu broke down in tears upon hearing the name of her hometown in the North.
“I’m not sure if I’ll even recognize my family,” Yu said, rubbing her thumbs against a Red Cross booklet detailing the six-day schedule.
Once at the site, the families participate in group banquets and are given time just with their relatives. The departures from Mount Geumgang have produced scenes of sobbing octogenarians reaching up to touch bus windows in a final goodbye.
“They are separated again so quickly, and that can lead to anger, sorrow and depression,” said Kwak Keum Joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University. No post-reunion counseling is available from the government.
Kang said he’ll worry about that after meeting his son.
“If I could meet my family for just one day or one hour, I’d be grateful and die in peace,” he said.