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Family Reunions A First Sign Of Conciliation From North's Kim


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. After threats that they would not take place, hundreds of South Koreans are traveling to North Korea to meet with relatives six decades after their separation following the Korean War. The reunions went ahead despite tensions caused by the north's nuclear tests and the south's determination to conduct military exercises with the U.S. that begin on Monday.

Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies joins us now. Professor Cha, thanks very much for being with us.

VICTOR CHA: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What change, because North Korea initially said they were not going to proceed with the reunions unless the south postpone military exercises.

CHA: Well, I guess a couple of things. One is that there was really no possibility that the U.S. and ROK would postpone these exercises. They do them every year, they're purely for defensive purposes. So it could have been that they just knew that that was not going to happen.

The other, I think, is that the North Koreans don't do something for nothing. And the main reason they probably did it was to try to gain some aid from the South Koreans and the South Koreans did provide about a million dollars of humanitarian assistance to the north. And also tried to give the impression to the South Korean people that this new North Korean leader is a nice guy.

SIMON: Do these reunions mean anything for change relations between the north and the south?

CHA: Historically we have seen periods of thawing in the north-south relationship when there have been these reunions. But it's never been the case where the reunions themselves precipitate a thaw. Usually the reunions have been a manifestation of a thawing process that has been in place for several months. So in this case, I don't think it's going to lead to some sort of renaissance in north-south relations.

It is kind of strange. It's kind of a one-off event against a backdrop of very hostile relations between the two Koreas and, in particular, the background of this unpredictable fellow in the north.

SIMON: Of course these reunions come the very same week that the United Nations issued a report detailing what they referred to was war crimes, horrific human rights abuses by the North Korean regime. Do these reunions in any way relieve that perception of North Korea?

CHA: I don't think they do at all. I mean, this U.N. human rights commission of inquiry was quite damning. It's the most specific and graphic details that we've had of human rights abuses in North Korea. Even if the North Koreans condemn it, there's no way they can deny it, and in may ways this is their worst nightmare because they have tried to keep this human rights issue as nameless and faceless as possible.

Just a bunch of statistics, if anything, you know, hundreds of thousands in labor camps. But the report doesn't allow them to do that. So it's very possible that in response to that they felt they needed to do something to sort of change the public narrative on this regime.

And while their very important humanitarian gesture for the Korean families separated when war broke out in 1950, in the broader scheme of things, this doesn't improve the human rights situation.

SIMON: Professor Cha, as the calendar flips over page after page and the world gets farther away from the events of the early 1950s that divided Korea, are there changing attitudes in South Korea about trying to reach some kind of accommodation that would allow families to reunite while they still can?

CHA: Well, I think for many South Koreans, this is a situation that is unacceptable. I think these folks who are being reunited this week are in their mid-80s or so. They don't have many years left. You know, their last dying wish is to see their relatives in the north, and the problems has always been that while I think the South Koreans have been pretty proactive in being willing to do this and hold these reunions, it's the north that has been more reluctant to do it. They have to select the people very carefully who they want to allow to have these reunions. So the primary impediment, I think, has been on the northern side. I think for younger South Koreans, there's an understanding that while unification is something that could be very difficult and very expensive, I think they also understand that history is not on North Korea's side and that sooner or later this problem is going to fall into their lap and they have to be able to deal with it in some way.

SIMON: Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and he's the Korea Chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.