A few lucky Korean family members from North and South will meet loved ones that they haven’t seen for over sixty years at the snowy, virtually abandoned Mount Kumgang tourist hotel complex, which itself is an apt backdrop for an uncertain “breakthrough” in inter-Korean relations. Fueled by parallel New Year’s speeches and resolutions by South and North Korean leaders last month (Kim Jong-un pledged to seek inter-Korean rapprochement; Park Geun-hye called reunification a daebak, or “bonanza”), North Korea has actually lived up to National Defense Commission declarations and pledges to set aside slander (for now) and possibly even to ignore the annual U.S.-ROK training exercises set to start on February 24 so that these inter-Korean family meetings can go forward. But on the rare occasions when inter-Korean relations ease, such circumstances always engender doubts about how and when the other shoe will drop.
Since the two Koreas allowed the first family reunions in the mid-1980s, they have been intensely emotional personal gatherings with universal humanitarian appeal, but they have always been bounded by politics and subject to brutal political calculation. Unfortunately the spigot has been off more than on, making these events all the more precious and heart-rending. But when they do occur, the human and humanitarian glimmers of reunion have been limited by both time and political constraints, as well as by the exigencies of inevitable renewed separation. There is reunion, but then political reality sets in. What can be said? What is better left unsaid? What momentos can be given, which can be kept, and which are more prudently refused, hidden, or discarded? Divided family reunions on the Korean peninsula are, at their core, unquestionably humanitarian and indeed do deserve to be separated from politics, but they are also intensely political, and will likely remain so even if they are regularized.
On the South Korean side, the family reunion project is essentially a national lottery. Since the June 2000 inter-Korean summit, over 125,000 South Koreans were on the waiting list for divided family reunion. Since then, over 50,000 Koreans have died (around 3,800 each year), missing their chance. Even if one makes the reunion list, there is no guarantee that relatives on the North Korean side will be found. Precisely because this issue will continue to diminish with the passage of time as a politically salient form of leverage in inter-Korean relations, now is the time for family exchanges to be depoliticized and treated as a purely humanitarian issue.
Of course, humanitarianism is not at all what North Korea is about. It is hard to imagine that youthful Kim Jong-un is that much worried about reuniting separated Korean grandparents. Many North Korea watchers are quick to imagine a North Korean sucker punch rather than a step forward. But it is also true that Kim Jong-un signaled from his first public speech in 2012 a desire for a more stable inter-Korean relationship. What is behind North Korea’s strategy?
One can imagine several possibilities. The most obvious one is that a stable relationship with South Korea will likely be accompanied by substantial economic benefits in the form of renewed economic relations with South Korea. The one North Korea seemed most interested in last September was the reestablishment of the Kumgang tourism project, which was closed in 2008 but proved to be a solid revenue earner for North Korea that is politically a low threat to North Korea’s regime cohesion and is geographically far from Pyongyang.
There are also political motives for the North to pursue better relations with Seoul. In two rounds of high-level political talks, the North Korean side has reportedly requested an end to slander (or any form of public criticism of North Korea) and an end to U.S.-ROK joint exercises. The first is as understandable from a North Korean perspective (criticism of North Korea’s leadership is intolerable and corrosive to the regime’s political control) as it is unimaginable in a democratic society such as South Korea. The president may curb her tongue but clearly cannot control freedom of speech in a democratic South Korean media, although there were noticeable measures of self-censorship exercised by the media during the Kim Dae-jung era.
But the biggest objective for North Korea may be its desire to divide South Korea from the United States through appeals for national unity and Korean reunification as a task to be undertaken by the Koreans themselves (uri minjok kkiri). This basic principle was enshrined in the first inter-Korean accord on July 4, 1972, and has been a consistent theme in the June 2000 and October 2007 inter-Korean declarations. However, as South Koreans have enjoyed economic and political modernization by successfully exploiting interconnection with the world and have witnessed North Korea’s isolation and relative failure, the North Korean vision of autonomy—at the expense of everything else—is no longer a compelling one for most South Koreans. It will remain a sticking point in inter-Korean relations and a major obstacle in any effort to achieve Korean reunification, regardless of whether reunification turns out to be a bonanza or an unavoidable burden.