October 15, 2015

Korean Word of the Day: Family Reunion (가족상봉)

Photo of woman embracing crying elderly man
The international community hears a lot about the excesses of North Korea, whether it be the executions of former administration favorites, or candy bar economics. But an ongoing story we hear less about is how reunions between family members separated by the division of Korea in 1953 have become a political football.

A typical scenario is that North Korea starts making conciliatory overtures a few months before the annual South Korean – U.S. military exercises, which opens the door to scheduling family reunions. However, once preparations are underway, North Korea threatens to cancel them unless the military exercises are called off.

They have to know perfectly well by this time that the exercises will not be canceled, so the the whole call for reunions is a sham from beginning to end. But families who have been separated for half a century can’t help but hope. Surely this is the cruelest thing one set of Koreans can do to another, given the strength and importance of family ties.

Reunions are scheduled once again for next week. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the families will not be disappointed at this late date. Many of the participants are very elderly, and have not seen their relatives since they were children.

To give you some idea of the scale of the schism caused by the Korean division, there are 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for family reunions. 600 were selected by lottery for this round of reunions, and screened down to 100, with those who are least likely to survive to the next reunion taking precedence. Two of the South Koreans selected are 98 years old. More details.

This real life wound to the heart of Korea (the whole Korea) may shed some light on why the theme of lost relatives is so common in Korean drama. It’s an everyday truth etched into the family history of many, many Koreans, on both sides of the DMZ.

Getting back to the term for the reunions, regular visitors will recognize 가족 (kajok, family) from my earlier post. 상봉 (sahng-boeng) means reunion or reunited. Another word for reunion, 재회 (jay-wheh) is also sometimes used, so family reunion is 가족상봉 or 가족재회. Thanks to 귀선 for helping me with these terms.


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September 3, 2015

Korean Politics: Fair Wind from the West

Korean politics is (are?) complex. While issues may seem similar to those found in other modern industrial cultures, positions and affiliations are often rooted in ancient conflicts and alliances. But even a Korean political novice like me can tell it’s significant when Park Gun Hye goes to China to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of their WWII victory, and Kim Jong Un doesn’t.
The Chinese and South Korean flags side by side connected by a short chain
This follows an unprecedented (in my paltry 4 years of Korea-watching, at least) apology from the north for crossing into the South Korean side of the “demilitarized” zone between the two countries – which is, of course, bristling with weaponry on both sides – and planting land mines. Two South Korean soldiers were maimed.

Of course, the north promptly turned around and denied that expressing “regret” constituted an apology. Um, OK. But that is not the only sign of diminished belligerence from North Korea. MORE…