GENEVA / SEOUL (7 December 2016) - The continuing plight and pain of families torn apart on the Korean peninsula, some for more than 60 years, should be addressed urgently, especially given the advanced age of many of the victims, a UN Human Rights Office report has urged.
“The emotional, psychological, social and economic toll of involuntary separation persists to this day, as people continue to search for the truth and for contact with their loved ones,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
The report, published on Wednesday, examines the different and complex way families have been separated since the 1950-53 Korean War: through displacement, enforced disappearance and abduction, and also as a result of individuals fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), often referred to as North Korea.
“This report looks at past and present-day forms of involuntary separation and outlines a practical and humane approach to family reunification. These people are not just statistics; they are not a faceless mass of victims caught up in the sweep of history. They are individuals with their own, unimaginable, stories of suffering – a suffering that remains as acute as ever despite the passing of years,” the High Commissioner noted.
The report, which includes powerful testimonies from mostly elderly victims, documented by the UN Human Rights Office, finds that involuntary separation in the Koreas is not just the inevitable consequence of a war situation but “also the result of structural forms of exclusion, impunity and disempowerment the conflict has brought to the fore.”
The long-lasting effects of the prejudice faced by women receive particular attention in the report, as reflected in the account of Park Dong-yeol*, now 85, who fled her hometown in North Korea in 1950 but was not allowed onto a boat heading for the South Korean city of Busan, because of a superstition that having a woman on board would curse the vessel.
She finally reached the Republic of Korea (ROK) – often referred to as South Korea – on foot, where she discovered her status as a single woman raised suspicions that she might be a spy and she was kept under close police surveillance. To counter this, she got married, “after I had lost hope of returning to my family in North Korea.”
Since 1953, it is estimated that 129,616 individuals have registered for reunion with their families in the DPRK, but more than half have now died without being reunited. For those still on the list, some 55 per cent are aged over 80.
Since 2000, there have been the occasional, tightly controlled reunions during which 100 families from each side were allowed to meet briefly, but “even for this minority, the meetings often seem to bring about more distress than peace of mind,” the report says.
“We could barely talk in the hall. There were journalists on one side and minders on the other. Then we had two hours of private time. Only then was my daughter able to cry,” said 88-year-old Ji Eungyeong* of her meeting in 2015 with the daughter she had left behind in North Korea 64 years earlier.
The experiences of people in South Korea whose relatives were abducted are also examined in the report. Jeong Sun-ui’s father was forcibly disappeared in 1950. For the rest of the family in South Korea, this meant they were treated with suspicion as possible spies. “There was always a sense of guilt by association,” he said.
The number of people who escaped from the DPRK and eventually arrived in the ROK has decreased since 2008 due to stringent border controls, the report says. For those who try, many of them women, it is a major decision.
“Individuals risk their lives and expose themselves to harsh treatment, including hard labour sentences, if they are caught. Those who manage to escape expose relatives to acts of retaliation and harassment by the authorities,” the report says.
Many escapees are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Their insecurity is exacerbated by the fear of forced repatriation and many women who give birth in China, for example, do not register their children to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
The report makes it clear that the primary responsibility for resolving the issue of family separation lies with the two countries. The main recommendations include allowing unhindered people-to-people contacts between the two countries; finalising and publishing lists of all individuals missing since the Korean War and locating their whereabouts; protecting people who leave the DPRK, including women and children, from trafficking and other human rights violations that break their family ties.
The report also stresses that the DPRK should take concrete steps to locate and return people who were abducted, and lift restrictions preventing its citizens from travelling and communicating with the outside world.
The main obstacle to implementing the report’s recommendations is the increased political and military tension in the region that has brought family reunions and bilateral dialogue to a halt.
“As rising tensions reduce the chance of addressing the problem of family separation proactively as a common priority, victims risk being further marginalised,” the report warns.