Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Family reunions a bargaining chip for N. Korea's Kim

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SEOUL, South Korea -- For Kang Neung-hwan, a 92-year-old retired salesman from Seoul, the chance of seeing his son for the first time depends on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Kang is the oldest of 100 South Koreans chosen by lottery to meet relatives left behind almost 61 years after the war that cemented the division of the two countries. The reunions -- last held in 2010 -- begin Feb. 20, if the North keeps its commitment.

"I can't think of anything better that could happen in my life," Kang said as he gazed at a basket of gifts -- vitamins, socks, underwear, toothpaste and cough medicine -- he prepared for his 62-year-old son. He only learned the wife he left behind was pregnant when he applied last year for a slot in the reunions to see a sister who has since died.

The reunions mark the most significant step in improved ties in the year since the Kim regime threatened a nuclear strike against Seoul. The North has routinely used the visits as a bargaining chip, and Kim Jong Un is trying to link future reunions to reviving a tourist resort that generated hundreds of millions of dollars for his cash-strapped country.

"Reunions are the North's feelers for any political concessions from the South," said Kim Soo-am, a researcher at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "Family reunions are as much a political issue as they are a humanitarian one between these two countries."

The influx of hundreds of people to Mount Geumgang for the family reunions will briefly breathe life into a resort that attracted almost two million South Koreans before tours were suspended in 2008 after a North Korean soldier fatally shot a guest. Kim called for talks on Mount Geumgang to be restarted on Jan. 24, when he offered to renew reunions.

Mount Geumgang was the brainchild of Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Yung, a refugee from the North who spent much of his career promoting reconciliation. He set up the Hyundai Asan Corp. to boost co-operation with the North and initially agreed to pay Pyongyang almost $1 billion to develop the resort. The fees were later lowered and calculated on a per tourist basis.

Kim has played politics with the planned reunions, demanding the United States and South Korea cancel annual military drills due to start Feb. 24. He cancelled scheduled reunions in September four days before their start, accusing the South of putting up "obstacles to reconciliation."

The aging survivors can be caught up in the politics between two countries that technically remain in a state of war. Koreans are barred from communicating with relatives on either side, so reunion participants know the visit will probably be their only chance for contact with their loved ones.

"These people can't wait much longer, because most of them are weak and old, and their sorrow has been smouldered in their hearts from the 60 years of longing," South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Jan. 27.

-- Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2014 A6

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