The Dark Side of Korean Family Reunions

By Robert Collins


Divided families reunion. 
(Photograph Credit: Divided Families Foundation)

As we watched the first of three reunions of 89 families take place at Kumgang Mountain Resort in August, we could not help but feel sympathetic to each member of the families split apart for nearly seven decades by antithetical politics and a war that cost over two million Korean lives. Certainly, the happiness displayed by the family members at their reunion was as real as at the 20 other reunions that have taken place since 2000.

However, there is a very dark side to these reunions and that darkness emanates from the Kim regime’s use of blackmail and system of human rights denial. First, the limitations that North Korea puts on each reunion are exasperatingly restrictive, considering the fact that there are 57,000 South Korean family members, as of May, awaiting the opportunity to meet their long lost loved ones in the North. The vast majority of those 57,000 are over 70 years old. Allowing just 89 senior citizens to participate in a single reunion event is a far cry from the reunion scale needed to grant all of the separated Koreans even one visit with their family members from the other side of the DMZ prior to their passing. 

Crossing The Taedong River. Refugees fleeing from the Chinese Communist forces wade across the Taedong River near Pyongyang in North Korea, during the Korean War, 13th December 1950.
(Photograph Credit: Divided Families Foundation)

Second, the selection process on North Korea’s side is purely political and is focused on historical loyalty to the Kim regime’s Supreme Leader and the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). Anyone with a poor loyalty record would never be selected for such reunions. Although the Kim regime’s process for selecting reunion participants from the North is not publicized, it is undoubtedly consistent with other policy decisions and security practices employed by the KWP. First, the Party decides all policy and the government implements as directed. The KWP is run by the “Party within the Party”—the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD)—which facilitates the decision-making process for the Supreme Leader and then distributes guidance to the appropriate agencies and regional institutions. In this case the primary local agencies would be the Ministry of People’s Security (North Korea’s national police force) and the KWP committee at the city or county level. The county police hold the background investigation records of every county resident. This songbun file contains the history of each individual and their family members out to a minimum of three generations, and the file is updated regularly. Relatives in South Korea would be of particular note in this file with exact detail on who these relatives are, where they are located in the South, and whether there has been any contact in the past via letters or other means.

The county party committee would have records on the political performance of each county resident and problems related to political loyalty identified during saenghwal chonghwa—life self-critique—where one confesses political and personal shortcomings for that week. The two files would then be combined to provide a report by the county party committee back to the OGD through the county party committee’s “organizational secretary.” Those chosen from the North will have been culled from these evaluations.

Third, those deemed eligible based on their political and social history would then undergo one to two weeks of intense indoctrination by the county party committee’s “propaganda secretary,” who would use a standard format provided by the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department at the KWP headquarters in Pyongyang. This indoctrination would focus on appropriate talking points of praise for the Kim regime, and ensuring that the relative from the North does not betray the Kim regime by complaining about the living conditions in the North or by criticizing the regime in any way while meeting with their relative from the South.

Fourth, as the family members meet at the reunion tables provided for each family, the Kim regime deploys Party “guidance officers,” who monitor the conversations closely in order to stop perceived politically problematic discussions, and to report back up through their chain of command on the political performance of the North Korean participants.

Fifth, as there is for any North Korean that comes in contact with South Koreans on an official basis, each North Korean who participates in the reunion will undergo extended self-criticism sessions in front of county party committee and police officials to ensure that there is no incident of political misspeak that violates the pre-indoctrination themes or that the participants are not prone to betraying the Kim regime in the future.

Sixth, information from all of the aforementioned processes will be recorded in the individual citizen’s songbun file.

Last, but not least, South Korean relatives regularly give generous gifts (within guidelines worked out by officials of the two sides) to their North Korean family members. These gifts are then targeted by North Korean officials to collect as bribes to the officials in order to be lenient on the North’s reunion participants. This is reportedly a common practice in all communication between North Koreans and their relatives in the South or elsewhere overseas.

For Kim Jong-un, the fact that the families were able to be reunited stands out as a tool of influence requiring little, if any, commitment to North-South reconciliation efforts initiated at the April 27, 2018 summit meeting between Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Re-enforcing the loyalty of the North’s oldest residents is the dark side of that tool.

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