But some commentators believe these tightly-controlled and orchestrated events are just a precious diplomatic tool for North Korea in its ongoing stoush with the South.
While these and thousands more separated families could easily spend the last few years of their lives together, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang is normally empty, but last week it was filled with old people who were meeting relatives for the first time in decades. The last time they had seen one another, they had been children. Or newlyweds. Or brothers and sisters, cousins, parents.
Separated in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, they had found themselves stranded on either side of the border. Ultimately, those in the North were sealed off from the world – those in the South were unable to cross. A few months ago, many weren’t even sure whether their loved ones were still alive.
The reunions, which have taken place sporadically since the mid-1980s, feel like the antithesis of the usual steely state of affairs that exists between the two Koreas, ever since a ceasefire agreement brought an end to the war in 1953.
The lead up to the latest spectacle was typically tense, with shots and propaganda having been exchanged over the demilitarised zone after two South Korean soldiers were injured by a North Korean landmine.
“It’s incredible that some of these people haven’t seen each other – fathers and children, or parents and children – for 70 years. And Pyongyang is not the kind of regime to waste these kinds of opportunities. Humanitarian considerations don’t come into it.” — Professor Remco Breuker, Leiden University, The Netherlands
But as the families, dressed in their very best for the occasion, embraced their long lost loved ones, 60 years of separation suddenly faded away.
Amid the widely-televised sea of tears, it appeared that politics was pushed aside for compassion — if only momentarily.
But according to commentators, politics was very much at play in Mount Kumgang.
Remco Breuker, a Korean specialist at The Netherlands’ Leiden University, observed that while such reunions were valuable from a humanitarian point of view, the North kept them short and infrequent as a way of maintaining political influence over its relationship with South Korea.
“Pyongyang is very conservative in using what I think it considers as one of its weapons in North-South Korean relations,” Professor Breuker said. “By allowing everyone to meet [freely] they would lose this bargaining chip.”
La Trobe University politics lecturer Benjamin Habib added that the politics behind the reunions was what dictated their structure.
“The meetings are short because these events are more about diplomatic game play than the families themselves.”
Dr Habib said that the reunions were more an incentive than a bargaining chip.
“Both sides use the reunions as a confidence-building measure. The North Koreans have a history of coercive bargaining . . . However, reunions don’t really fit into this pattern. They are more of an indication of a relative thaw in inter-Korean relations. And I stress the word ‘relative’ here.”
The reunions generally consist of only a few hours of encounters – some public, some private – over a couple of days. For this latest encounter, families had to cram a lifetime of stories into six, two-hour meetings.
“It is incredibly powerful,” said Professor Breuker. “It’s incredible that some of these people haven’t seen each other – fathers and children, or parents and children – for 70 years. And Pyongyang is not the kind of regime to waste these kinds of opportunities. Humanitarian considerations don’t come into it.”
WHO GETS TO GO
The selection process for reuniting families says a lot about the motivations of each Korea.
In the South, it’s essentially a lottery system overseen by the Red Cross, which chooses those who are eligible at random. In the North, it’s done according to loyalty towards the political party of ruler Kim Jong-un.
Fifteen years ago, more than 125,000 South Koreans were on the waiting list. Almost half of them have died since. And in the last 30 years, just 19,000 people have been reunited.
“If you look at Germany before reunification . . . I think an effort was made by both governments in Germany not to politicise these meetings, to see them purely in humanitarian terms. And that’s something that in North Korea is apparently completely impossible,” continued Professor Breuker.
University of Western Australia associate professor Jie Chen, who has studied different family reunion models of divided nations including the two Koreas, China and Taiwan, and East and West Germany, said the Korean case was particularly tragic both because of the decades of separation and North Korea’s crackdown on mobility.
“Part of the hardship comes from the poverty of North Korea, because South Koreans basically have the money to travel anywhere . . . but the North Koreans can’t afford such international travel,” he said.
“For the North Koreans, the only way to see their South Korean family members is to be part of the government’s organised reunion sessions, and that makes it quite different from the earlier cases of the two Germanys and the two Chinas.”
Dr Chen added: “We always care about the Korean issue from the perspective of nuclear crisis, but the Korean tragedy is first and foremost a human tragedy. There is a human face to it. So many Korean families were split.”
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The reunions have their roots in a Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) show screened in 1983 called “Finding Dispersed Families”.
It was meant to be a one-off, two-hour special. But KBS, which is the national broadcaster of South Korea, was overwhelmed by the response. An emergency meeting was held, and the show was extended. The program started in June and didn’t end until November.
It aired live for a total of 453 hours over 138 days – 100,000 people applied to be involved, with 53,000 cases broadcast. More than 10,000 families ultimately were reunited.
Relations with the North were still incredibly tense. In this initial program, the reunions were mostly of Koreans who had fled abroad and not between South Koreans and family members trapped in the north.
The first North-South reunions occurred two years later, in September 1985, when a North Korean delegation visited KBS. Over the three decades since, the two countries have managed 20 reunions.
This year, their effect was as much about rebuilding confidence between the two Koreas following the tensions of August.
“Both Seoul and Pyongyang were looking for a carrot to offer the other after the escalation of the loudspeaker crisis earlier in the year,” said Dr Habib.
But in the lead-up, it was unclear whether the latest reunions would go ahead at all. North Korea can often cancel such events on a whim.
“It’s usually as a punishment for perceived South Korean misbehaviour or for not giving in to North Korean demands,” suggested Professor Breuker.
While the reunions almost always happen during periods of détente, the effect of these reunions on long-term relations between North and South Korea would appear negligible.
“In the run up to these events, South Korea really takes care not to offend North Korea too much . . . but afterwards, a honeymoon period or any kind of lasting impact? No . . . I don’t see this having any kind of impact on North-South relations whatsoever,” Professor Breuker added. “This is one of those cases in which the weakest party is actually the strongest.”
Experts suggest there is little incentive for the North Korean regime to agree to longer or more frequent reunions.
With the decades-long stand-off showing no sign of easing any time soon, the only guarantee of being able to reunite permanently is for North Koreans to defect.
But the people who lost each other during the war are old. Their health is failing, and they are the ones least likely ever to leave the North.
“You don’t see these people defect, they’re too old . . . It’s physically impossible for them to defect,” said Professor Breuker.
So, orchestrated meetings such as last week’s event at Mount Kumgang remain the best opportunity for reuniting with long-lost loved ones. The tens of thousands of Koreans who weren’t chosen this time must wait patiently for the next round of reunions to be announced.
At Mount Kumgang, the old people waved tearful goodbyes to their relatives after exchanging final gifts. They shouted through the windows of the departing buses, promising that they would see each other again.
In those precious few moments together, no-one was ready to accept that this first catch-up was likely to have also been their last.