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Long-awaited Korean Family Reunions Come Amid Humanitarian Concerns

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 23 2014 (IPS) - Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former foreign minister of South Korea, said he was particularly “encouraged” by the agreement reached between the two Koreas on family reunions.

After his recent meeting with Kim Yong Nam, President of the Presidium of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, in Sochi, Ban said that tension between the two Koreas has been high and inter-Korean relations have remained strained for far too long.

“As such, this important development is a step in the right direction.” he added.

Meanwhile, a group of elderly South Koreans travelled to North Korea to meet their long-separated relatives in the first reunion in more than three years.

The elders, whose average age was around 84, had to be accompanied by family members on their way to the heavily fortified border and then to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang.

It has been reported that many of them made the journey either by ambulance or in wheelchairs. The meetings are likely to be the last chance for them to meet their families, which were torn apart by the Korean War 60 years ago.

The six-day (Feb 22 to Feb 26) family reunions, which began Thursday, are the results of a hard-won agreement between North and South Korea. North Korea almost canceled the reunion in January protesting the US-South Korea military drill scheduled to start later this month.

After the Commission of Inquiry (COI) of United Nations office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released the human rights report on North Korea on February 17, South Korea’s ambassador for human rights, Jung-Hoon Lee, said in an interview with Wall Street Journal that he’s convinced the North is using the concessions on the family reunions as a bargaining chip for human rights issues.

The report catalogues crimes against humanity including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence”, “North Korea understands the gravity of the report and the reaction from the U.N. and the international community as a whole,” Ambassador Lee said. “They’re trying to dilute the effect of the COI report by playing this game of being the peacekeeper, showing they’re not bad people, (and) they’re hosting family reunions.”

Though it is still unclear whether the reunions will bring in a broader agreement, the commission will present its findings on March 17 to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Its recommendations include Security Council sanctions against those who’re most likely to commit the crimes against humanity.

It has been estimated that the war separated tens of millions of people. Nearly 130,000 South Koreans have applied for family reunions since 2000. In each of the 19 rounds of reunions, only a few hundred got selected by lottery in South Korea.

So far, 18,000 have met their families in person. But the number is declining: South Korea’s unification ministry says that 57,700 have died, including 3,841 who passed away in 2013.

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