‘Dream or reality?’ Koreans to meet after decades apart

Lee Soo-nam, 76, shows photos of his brother Ri Jong Song in North Korea during an interview at his home in Seoul, South Korea. Lee is among about 200 war-separated South Koreans and their family members who are crossing into North Korea for heart-wrenching meetings with relatives they haven’t seen for decades. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Updated 19 August 2018
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‘Dream or reality?’ Koreans to meet after decades apart

  • It is a move in the right direction, but this could still be the last time the relatives meet
  • Since the end of the war, both Koreas have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border

SEOUL, South Korea: Lee Soo-nam was 8 the last time he saw his older brother. Sixty-eight years ago this month the boy watched, bewildered, as his 18-year-old brother left their home in Seoul to escape invading North Korean soldiers who were conscripting young men just weeks after invading South Korea to start the Korean War.
An hour later his brother, Ri Jong Song, was snatched up by North Korean soldiers near a bridge across Seoul’s Han River. Lee always assumed Ri died during the three-year war that killed and injured millions before a cease-fire in 1953, but his mother prayed daily for her lost son’s return, only giving up a few years before her death in 1975.
But Ri survived the war, living in North Korea. The brothers, now 76 and 86, will be among hundreds of Koreans who will participate, starting Monday, in a week of temporary reunions of divided families. Many have had no contact with each other since the war cemented the division of the peninsula into the North and South.
The elderly relatives gathering at North Korea’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort know that, given the fickle nature of ties between the rival Koreas, this could be the last time they see each other before they die.
“I’m nervous. I’m still unsure whether this is a dream or reality. I just want to thank him for staying alive all these years,” Lee said in an interview in his home in Seoul, not far from where he last saw his brother.
Since the end of the war, both Koreas have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border or contacting them without permission. Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives.
This week’s reunions come after a three-year hiatus during which North Korea tested three nuclear weapons and multiple missiles that demonstrated the potential of striking the continental United States.
At past meetings, elderly relatives — some relying on wheelchairs or walking sticks — have wept, hugged and caressed each other in a rush of emotions. According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, more than 500 separated South Koreans and their family members will cross the border for two separate rounds of reunions between Aug. 20 and 26.
At Diamond Mountain, Lee expects to meet Ri and his 79-year-old North Korean wife and 50-year-old son. Lee will bring more than a dozen family photos, including a black-and-white picture of Ri in a buzz-cut when he was 16 or 17.
“That’s how I remember him,” Lee said. “I lost a brother and my parents lost a child, but my brother lost his parents, siblings, friends and an entire hometown, and he probably spent his whole life longing for all of those things. It’s heartbreaking to think about.”
The difference in the siblings’ family names is a product of the Korean Peninsula’s division — each country uses different English transliteration rules, so Lee in the South is spelled Ri in the North.
Many of the South Korean participants in the reunions will be war refugees who were born in North Korea.
Kim Kwang-ho, 79, was among some 14,000 refugees who were ferried to South Korea by the American freighter SS Meredith Victory in December 1950 in one of the world’s largest humanitarian operations. Also on the ship were the parents of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who described the evacuation as a “voyage of freedom and human rights” in a speech in Washington last year.
At the reunions, Kim expects to meet his 78-year-old brother, Kim Kwang Il, and his sister-in-law. Kim has vivid memories of what he described as a beautiful hometown in northern North Korea, where he plowed rice and corn fields with cattle, picked peaches and apricots from trees and spent hours swimming in brooks.
He gets emotional when talking about the mother he left behind, who used to cry over the death of his brother during the war.
“I have clear memories of events that happened,” Kim said. “But somehow I can’t remember the faces of my mother and brother.”
Behind the raw emotions, the meetings are tightly coordinated events where participants are closely watched by North Korean officials and dozens of South Korean journalists.
As in previous reunions, South Korea’s Red Cross, which organizes the events with its North Korean counterpart, has issued a guidebook telling South Koreans what to do and what not to do.
“Political comments such as criticism of the North’s leadership and the state of its economy could put your (North Korean) family members into a difficult situation,” the green book says. “If a North Korean family member sings a propaganda song or makes a political comment, restrain them appropriately by naturally changing the subject of the conversation.”
Lee knows he won’t be able to talk much about what happened when his brother was taken in August 1950. Instead, he plans to share childhood memories, such as when Ri took his younger brothers on a hike on nearby Mount Nam to look at foxes living near an old fortress wall.
South Koreans also can’t give their North Korean relatives luxury items because of international sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programs, with past cash gifts banned this year to reflect the sanctions, according to a South Korean Red Cross official who didn’t want to be identified, citing office rules.
The reunions are occurring during a flurry of diplomatic contacts. In recent months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met Moon twice and held a summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, where they issued a vague goal of a nuclear-free peninsula, without describing how and when it would occur.
Moon, who plans to meet Kim again in September in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, says progress in inter-Korean reconciliation will be a crucial part of international efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North. The Koreas have held military talks and are fielding combined teams at this month’s Asian Games in Indonesia in a gesture of goodwill.
Still, South Korea has failed to persuade the North to accept its long-standing proposal for more frequent reunions with more participants. North Korea has also ignored the South’s suggestion of hometown visits and letter exchanges.
The limited number of reunions cannot meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s, South Korean officials say. More than 75,000 of the 132,000 South Koreans who have applied to participate in reunions have died, according to government figures.
Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip with the South, and doesn’t want them expanded because they give its people better awareness of the outside world. While South Korea uses a computerized lottery to pick participants for the reunions, North Korea is believed to choose based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.
“When we meet this time, that will be the end for me,” said Yoon Heung-kyu, a 91-year-old Korean War veteran from the South and a staunch anti-communist campaigner in his youth who will be meeting his North Korean brother-in-law and grandnephew.
“North Korea guards against exposing its people to the free South because of fear of a regime collapse. It just allows 100 or so participants every several years to save face internationally,” he said. “These aren’t really family reunions; if they were, we would be meeting in our hometowns, not at Diamond Mountain.”


Myanmar army should be removed from politics: UN probe

Updated 18 September 2018
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Myanmar army should be removed from politics: UN probe

  • The report says an estimated 10,000 people were killed in the crackdown and that was likely a conservative figure
  • Investigators said the Tatmadaw should be restructured and the process should begin by replacing the current leadership

YANGON: Myanmar’s powerful army should be removed from politics, UN investigators said Tuesday in the final version of a damning report reiterating calls for top generals to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
A brutal military crackdown last year forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh. Demands have mounted for those who waged the campaign to face justice.
The UN’s 444-page probe is the most meticulous breakdown of the violence to date. It says the military’s top leadership should be overhauled and have no further influence over the country’s governance.
Myanmar’s military dominates the Buddhist-majority nation, holding a quarter of seats in parliament and controlling three ministries, making their grip on power firm despite political reforms which began in 2011.
But the report said the country’s civilian leadership “should further pursue the removal of the Tatmadaw from Myanmar’s political life,” referring to the nation’s armed forces.
The UN’s analysis, based on 18 months’ work and more than 850 in-depth interviews, urges the international community to investigate the military top brass for genocide, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar’s army has denied nearly all wrongdoing, insisting its campaign was justified to root out Rohingya insurgents who staged deadly raids on border posts in August 2017.
But the UN team said the military’s tactics had been “consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats.”
The report says an estimated 10,000 people were killed in the crackdown and that was likely a conservative figure.
Investigators said the Tatmadaw should be restructured and the process should begin by replacing the current leadership.
Myanmar only recently emerged from almost a half century of military junta rule and Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government remains in a delicate power balance with the generals.
Their presence in parliament gives them an effective veto on constitutional changes, making any transition to full civilian control extremely difficult.
Three key ministries -– home affairs, border and defense –- are also in their hands, giving them carte blanche to conduct security operations with little oversight.
“It is impossible to remove the army out of political life without changing the constitution, and the military have a veto over constitutional changes,” Mark Farmaner, from Burma Campaign UK, told AFP.
The UN team said there were reasonable grounds to believe that the atrocities — including systematic murder, rape, torture and arson -– were committed with the intention of destroying the stateless Rohingya, warranting the charges of genocide.
The mission, created by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017, did not focus its sights entirely on the army.
It directed specific criticism at Suu Kyi, whose global reputation has been shattered by her failure to speak up for the Rohingya against the military.
While acknowledging that the civilian authorities have little influence over military actions, the report said that their “acts and omissions” had “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
Pointing to “deeply entrenched” impunity in Myanmar, the investigators said the only chance to obtain accountability was through the international justice system.
They also pointed to failings of the UN’s office within Myanmar, alleging that “quiet diplomacy” was prioritized and that those who tried to push the UN’s Human Rights Up Front approach were “ignored, criticized, sidelined or blocked in these efforts.”
The independent UN team will present its findings to member states of the Human Rights Council in Geneva later on Tuesday, after which Myanmar will have a chance to respond to the allegations.
It also repeated suggestions that crimes against the Rohingya be referred to the International Criminal Court, which concluded in August that it had jurisdiction to investigate even though Myanmar is not a member of the treaty underpinning the tribunal.
Myanmar has dismissed the tribunal’s authority and analysts have pointed to the court’s lack of enforcement powers.
The investigators also recommended an arms embargo and “targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible.”