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16,000 S.Koreans died since 2018 waiting to reunite with family in North

June 11, 2023 - 15:14 By Ji Da-gyum
The fences surrounding Imjingak Village in the DMZ on the North Korean border are adorned with brightly colored ribbons. These ribbons frequently bear messages of peace, prayers, and well-wishes for family members residing in North Korea. (Photo Courtesy of anokarina's Flicker)

Over 16,000 elderly South Koreans who had applied for a reunion with their separated families in North Korea have passed away in the absence of reunion events since August 2018.

The annual number of South Korean applicants for reunions who have died has ranged from 3,300 to 3,700 since 2018, according to data provided by South Korea's Unification Ministry to Rep. Yang Kyung-sook of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea on Sunday.

The most recent state-organized in-person reunion event for families who were separated during the 1950-53 Korean War occurred in August 2018 at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, following inter-Korean Red Cross talks.

But from 2019 until May of this year, an additional 15,313 reunion applicants have died.

More specifically, the number of deceased individuals among reunion applicants for separated families increased by 16,510 from the end of August 2018 to May this year, as indicated by the Unification Ministry's website dedicated to providing statistics on separated families.

As of the end of August 2018, out of a total 132,731 reunion applicants since 1988, 76,024 individuals, accounting for 57.3 percent, had passed away. By May of this year, out of 133,680 total applicants, the number of deceased individuals had increased to 92,534, making up 69.2 percent.

In the span of only five months since the start of this year, another 1,483 elderly individuals have passed away.

By the end of May, out of the total 41,146 surviving reunion applicants, approximately 31.1 percent were aged 90 or older. Furthermore, about 67 percent of the applicants were aged 80 or older.

The number of deceased individuals includes those who were fortunate to have reunited with their separated families through face-to-face reunions, officially facilitated by the two Koreas from 2000 to 2018, as well as a few who met their North Korean families with the assistance of private organizations in a third country.

Considering that the majority of reunion applicants are elderly, the number of surviving separated family members is likely to decline rapidly in the coming years.

Reunions for separated families commenced in August 2000, as a result of the agreement reached in the June 15 Joint Declaration following the inter-Korean summit. Since then, a total of 21 face-to-face reunions and seven video family reunions were organized by the South Korean regime and North Korean authorities until August 2018.

However, reunion meetings have been suspended for almost five years with no signs of resumption due to strained inter-Korean relations following the sudden collapse of the Hanoi Summit between former US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February 2019.

"It is regrettable that there has been no progress in holding reunion meetings in the past five years, although the two Koreas marked the 23rd anniversary of the June 15th Inter-Korean Joint Declaration, which includes a significant agreement on reunions for separated families," Rep. Yang said in a press statement. "Both South and North Korea should promptly prioritize efforts to facilitate reunions for separated families based on humanitarian considerations."

The National Assembly Research Service advised the South Korean government once again to propose to North Korea the confirmation of the living status and addresses of separated families in a report titled "Measures to Revitalize Reunions for Separated Families" submitted upon the request of Rep. Yang.

But North Korea did not respond to the official proposal made by South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se in September of last year to hold inter-Korean talks for reunions of separated families. Moreover, regular contact between the two Koreas has been suspended since North Korea unilaterally severed all inter-Korean communication channels on April 7 without a clear explanation.