Past Korean reunions hampered by restrictions, monitoring
Oct. 21, 2015
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The Koreans tearfully reuniting this week after being torn apart by war for six decades yearn for details about their loved ones. But with strict rules and constant hovering by North Korean officials, the brief reunions have often ended with deep regrets over questions not asked and future meetings never to come.
Participants from democratic, wealthy South Korea travel with a guidebook warning about what not to say to relatives from impoverished, authoritarian North Korea: nothing about food shortages and economic malaise; nothing that questions the competence of three generations of Kim dictators.
"I just looked at their faces and asked questions like how many family members were still living in the North," said Jang Choon, 83, who was reunited with his younger brother and sister at the last round of the reunions before this week's. "We should have been given more time," said Jang, who still weeps whenever he thinks about the siblings he saw in February of last year but knows he'll likely never see again.
After the tears and hugs, genuine conversation is often tough, maybe impossible, during the reunions at North Korea's Diamond Mountain resort.
Here's a look at what past participants say happens when the journalists covering the reunions, which end Monday after two three-day rounds, leave and long-lost families from two starkly different countries have time to themselves:
SOUTH KOREAN RULES
South Koreans often want to ask whether their North Korean relatives have been well fed despite the North's chronic food shortages. But the guidebook issued by South Korea's Red Cross, which organizes the reunions with its North Korean counterpart, warns that could provoke the North.
"It's desirable to avoid an expression that North Korea might misunderstand ... even though you are curious," said the guidebook issued before last year's reunions. Seoul says this year's participants received essentially identical warnings.
It said South Korean participants must understand that "political comments, like criticism of North Korea's leadership and economic situation, may put your family members in a difficult situation."
It went on to advise South Koreans to try to "naturally" change the topic when their North Korean relatives sing propaganda songs or make political comments.
NORTH KOREAN SURVEILLANCE
South Koreans who attended last year's reunions said their North Korean relatives appeared to be watched constantly by North Korean officials at the reunion center.
"I stifled some questions that I wanted to ask," said Kim Se-rin, an 86-year-old South Korean.
Jeon Ho-yeon, an 82-year-old South Korean, said his 79-year-old North Korean brother tried to preach to him about the benefits of North Korea's socialist system. Jeon said he awkwardly tried to change the subject to family topics at the time.
Jeon said they later went to a hotel room to get away from reporters and TV cameras. But he still worried about what he said in the room because South Korean officials had earlier told him that even those conversations might be monitored.
"I had a lot of things I wanted to ask, like about how my father and mother had lived before they died, but I couldn't because I had to be sensitive about everything," Jeon said.
Park Chun-jae, 73, said his North Korean nephews, whatever the topic, seemed determined to tell him of the high quality of their lives in North Korea. "I wondered whether they were taught to say that, although it wasn't a bad thing to hear," Park said.
STILTED WORDS, FLEETING TIME
Some South Korean participants said it was difficult to have genuine, in-depth talks because of the South Korean-imposed restrictions, worries about monitoring and intense media coverage.
"We didn't have any talks worth remembering," said Jeon said. "I saw his face, learned that my parents were dead, but that was it."
Like this year's reunions, the Koreans who reunited last year weren't allowed to sleep in the same room and were allowed a total of only 12 hours together. Many said they ran out of time before they could find out what kind of lives their loved ones led.
"We should have been allowed to sleep in the same room," Jang said. "It had been so long since we'd seen each other that we just cried when we met. But then it was like the meeting was over just as we managed to stop weeping."
"They've changed so much. They used to be kids romping together every day, but we could only reunite after our hair turned nearly white," Jang said.
South Koreans can't give North Korean relatives luxury items because of U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed over Pyongyang's nuclear and long-range rocket tests.
Gifts like alcohol, cosmetics and watches that cost less than $88 are allowed; gold, silver and pearls are banned. Cash gifts have to be in U.S. dollars and must not exceed $1,500.
North Koreans usually give local liquor to their South Korean relatives.
Some South Koreans believed that if they gave too much money North Korean officials would confiscate it.
Jeon said he spent $880 packing two bags full of clothes, medicine and everyday items for his brother. He also gave him $500 in cash.
"He didn't show much gratitude," said Jeon, laughing. "I later learned that most of the other South Koreans gave about $1,000 to their relatives."