At present, about 130-thousand people are registered with the Korean Red Cross as separated families in South Korea. More than half, or 76-thousand, have passed away, never to see their lost relatives again, with 63 percent of the 60-thousand survivors over 80 years old. The Unification Ministry in South Korea estimates that more than 3,000 applicants die each year. The separated families issue is not a matter that the two Koreas can take time to discuss but an urgent one that should be resolved quickly. Here’s Dr. Oh Gyeong-seop at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

The governments in South and North Korea should resume the reunions immediately on humanitarian grounds. Most separated family members are in their 80s and 90s, and some are over 100 years old. A delay in the reunions will only reduce their opportunities to be reunited with their loved ones across the border. Of the surviving applicants, 83.4 percent are aged 70 or older, and 60 percent are over 80. It is not a matter that can be addressed slowly. The humanitarian issue should be resolved swiftly, while those people are still alive.

The separated families issue was not dealt with in the years following the 1953 ceasefire due to the hostile relations between South and North Korea. It took until August 1971, when the Korean Red Cross suggested a bilateral Red Cross meeting, for the issue to be officially brought up. The Red Cross of North Korea accepted the proposal, paving the way for the first inter-Korean dialogue since national division. In August 1972, the historic first round of inter-Korean Red Cross talks was held in Pyongyang. But it took a long time for the talks to actually lead to family reunions.

The family reunions were not realized at the time because of severed relations between South and North Korea. Later, in 1984, North Korea suggested giving aid to the flood-stricken South. As the Seoul government accepted it, bilateral dialogue began to proceed rapidly. In 1985, a group of 50 South Koreans traveled to Pyongyang and the same number of North Koreans came to Seoul to participate in the first temporary reunion of separated families. At that time, 65 families were reunited with their long-lost kin. It took a long time to actually hold the reunion due to the icy inter-Korean relations. But the two Koreas managed to finally hold the reunion, as they recognized the need for the humanitarian program. The first reunion carries great significance, as it provided momentum to hold more reunions later.

After the reunion was held on a trial basis, expectation was high that there would be opportunities for official reunions. Unfortunately, separated family members had to wait another 15 years until new rounds of reunions were arranged in Seoul and Pyongyang in August 2000, after the historic first inter-Korean summit between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June that year. Why did it take such a long time to officially hold the first reunion of separated families?

After the trial reunion, the South Korean government made constant efforts to carry out the reunion program. But after North Korea’s bombing of a Korean Air flight on November 29, 1987, Seoul-Pyongyang relations were almost broken. The adoption of an inter-Korean agreement in the early 1990s was a good opportunity to start the reunion program. But North Korea engaged in dialogue with the South in a strategic move to use inter-Korean ties for the purpose of escaping the crisis of the collapse of the socialist bloc. So, Pyongyang had no intention of joining the reunion program. The first North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 1993, and the nation suffered from severe famine and economic hardship in the so-called “arduous march” period from 1994 to 1998. Amid the deepening crisis, North Korea never responded to the proposals of family reunions, which it believed would have a negative impact on the regime.

Since 2000, there have been 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions and seven rounds of video reunions, with some 20-thousand people from 4,000 families joining the program. The numbers are extremely small, but many still hoped that constant inter-Korean exchanges would help resolve the separated families issue. However, the reunions and inter-Korean talks have been at a standstill since the 20th round of reunions in 2015, due to North Korea’s unilateral rejection of dialogue and its military provocations.

In an inter-Korean agreement on August 25, 2015, the two sides promised to resume the family reunion program, which was held at the family reunion center at Mt. Geumgang on October 21. But North Korea later conducted a series of long-range missile test-launches. It also went ahead with its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016 and the fifth one on September 9 in the same year. Needless to say, inter-Korean relations froze rapidly and the reunion program was suspended.

In reality, it is difficult to address this humanitarian issue because it is related to political and military problems. As a matter of fact, South and North Korea starkly differ in their methods for dealing with the issue. Seoul seeks to approach it from a humanitarian perspective, while Pyongyang has apparently used it as a negotiation card.

Obviously, North Korea uses this issue as a negotiation card. In August 2012, for example, North Korea rejected the family reunion program, saying that three requirements were not met. The requirements were lifting Seoul’s economic sanctions, resuming the Mt. Geumgang tour program, and changing South Korea’s position on the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In brief, North Korea was using the reunion program as a means of negotiating with the South. But the requests were difficult for the South Korean government to accept. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has recently proposed resuming the reunions, but North Korea has made no response to the offer. In the wake of its nuclear test, Pyongyang is under international sanctions joined by South Korea. North Korea is requesting the South to lift the sanctions and change its policy in a way to provide aid to the North. But these issues should not be linked to the family reunions.

With the separated family members aging fast, the reunion program has been suspended for two years. Some say that this issue should be approached in light of human rights, not from a humanitarian viewpoint. That is, it is necessary to maximize pressure on North Korea by using international human rights groups on the grounds that the so-called “family right,” which is one of the basic human rights, of separated families are being infringed upon.

Professor Je Seong-ho at Chung-Ang University raised this issue at a recent seminar. He said that it would be necessary to use international human rights organizations, which can use the family reunions issue to urge North Korea to improve its human rights situation. He maintained that South Korea should actively cooperate with human rights groups, including the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to persuade North Korea to solve the problem of displaced families. What he meant was that the issue should be handled at the international level in view of the right to family unification, which is guaranteed by the international law of human rights, so the international community will make efforts to facilitate the reunions of split families in Korea. At this point in time, we may seek to resolve the separated families issue gradually through cooperation with the international human rights regime. I think it’s a good idea.

North Korea’s series of provocations, including its nuclear tests, have resulted in intensifying international sanctions on the nation and also worsened relations with South Korea. Meanwhile, financial support for inter-Korean family reunions has sharply increased from the current 6.1 billion won to 12 billion won, which is about 11 million US dollars. This reflects the government’s strong commitment to supporting the family reunions.

Basically, the South Korean government tries to hold the reunions on a regular basis on humanitarian grounds, not connecting the issue with the nuclear crisis or inter-Korean ties. But North Korea remains mute over Seoul’s offer or view on this issue. The reunion program benefits not only separated family members in South Korea but also those in the North. I think Pyongyang should join the program without any conditions, regardless of the political situation.

The separated family members should be reunited before it is too late, without any conditions or negotiations. They should at least be able to confirm whether their lost relatives are dead or alive, and also hold letter exchanges if possible.

[Interview] Discount Store Provides Job Opportunities to N. Korean Newcomers

A large supermarket, located in Gojan-dong, Ansan City in Gyeonggi-do Province, provides job opportunities to North Korean defectors. Let’s hear from Jeon Ju-myong, president of the Unity Preparations North Korean Defectors’ Association.

The discount store is a kind of company the association established for the purpose of helping North Korean defectors get jobs. It runs on two-shift rosters. Employees work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. We thought a supermarket would create many jobs for the defectors.

After seven months of preparation, the store opened in August. The 1,000-square-meter store deals in various goods, including industrial products, household goods and food supplies. Half of the 40 employees are newcomers from North Korea. The store is a sort of community to help North Korean defectors become economically self-sufficient. Mr. Jeon continues to explain.

There might be limitations in business operation if we only employ North Koreans, who are not familiar with South Korean culture. Many South Korean employees here are experienced workers. A worker with 17 years of experience is in charge of getting goods offered at auctions, which is a very important part of our business. One or two North Korean employees follow him to learn how to do the job. Once they gain experience here, they will be able to run their own businesses later.

The competitiveness of a supermarket depends on whether and how it supplies good-quality products at cheaper prices. It’s been less than two months since the store opened, but it has already secured an ideal business partner, thanks to experienced South Korean employees and diligent North Korean workers. Let’s hear from vice president Lee Jong-pil.

We check auction markets in realtime and compare goods there to get the freshest and cheapest ones. We were incredibly busy in the initial stage, as we had to check three to four markets at a time. Now we have regular auction markets, and things have become a lot easier. As the employees put in a lot of legwork, the stock usually runs out each day and we get new products the next day. That’s why our products are fresh and clean.

Rumors of the high-quality, reasonably-priced goods at the store run by North Korean defectors spread quickly, and the number of customers has been on a steady rise.

I came here by bicycle as I heard products at this store are fresh and good. My colleagues come in flocks for the same reason. Look at the fish! It looks nice and fresh, doesn’t it?

The prices are cheaper here compared to other stores. I came here to get a box of sea plant stems. They are not expensive at all, and I’ll share them with my friends. Mushrooms, young radishes and curled mallows all look nice. South Koreans should help the North Korean employees and cooperate with them, since they came all the way to South Korea and work very hard. They are our neighbors now and we should live together.

The customers’ positive response has led to increasing sales. Here again is Mr. Jeon.

The sales keep rising, which is a very positive result. Many people like our top-quality, inexpensive products. We also deliver food to restaurants in the neighborhood, and more and more eateries are ordering them. The store has become famous through word-of-mouth, and I expect it will take root in a stable way in two or three months from now.

As the store is becoming recognized, expectations are running high that a second and third branch will open. The employees from North Korea have begun to plan their future.

When I get paid, I’ll get my son everything he wants—anything he wants to eat or wear. I also hope to give some presents to my parents. I want to spend money on my family.

First, I’ll buy a house. Then, I’ll get a car. I’ll also send my child to college.

The store plans to stock items produced by self-employed small business owners who came from North Korea to provide them with new business opportunities. Let’s listen again to Mr. Jeon.

Many North Korean defectors are self-employed, and they have difficulty in selling their products. Their goods vary, from kimchi and paper to drinks and dumplings. We’re making efforts to allow them to supply their products to our store to create a new distribution structure, where we can all live well in harmony.

If the store project turns out to be a success, the Unity Preparations North Korean Defectors’ Association is considering using the profits from the store to provide scholarships to students from North Korea. It will also continue to organize various volunteer programs, cultural events, and activities which promote friendship, such as playing soccer. But most of all, the association is focused on creating jobs for North Korean defectors for their economic independence.

We’ll continue to increase jobs for North Korean newcomers. We have a plan to open a rice factory in the food industry complex in Iksan. There, we’ll produce special rice that offers various health benefits. We’ve already purchased land, and construction of the factory will be complete in February next year. We’re even considering exporting it to foreign countries. We’ll hire about 40 North Korean expats there so they don’t have to worry about finding jobs. This is the association’s biggest goal for next year.

The self-support project will hopefully assist North Korean newcomers in their successful resettlement here in South Korea.