After 12 years of trying, North and South Korea are poised to take the first small step toward reuniting families separated when the nation was partitioned in 1948.
Next Friday, each of the Koreas will send a 151-member delegation to the other’s capital. In addition to folk art troupes and journalists, the groups will include 50 “average citizens,” who will be going back to their homes in Seoul and Pyongyang for the first time in nearly four decades.
The exchange is intended to ease some of the tension between the Communist north and the pro-Western south, which together have more than 1.3 million men under arms.
But the makeup of these citizen groups is likely to be a measure of the distrust that has built up between the Koreas. According to a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified by name, the government of North Korean President Kim Il Sung will send a delegation of something like “35 agents assigned to watch 15 Seoul natives, who will be selected for their political purity.”
A South Korean, who also requested anonymity, predicted that President Chun Doo Hwan’s government will do its best to choose Pyongyang natives “too old to have parents still living.”
The people of North Korea are among the world’s most closely regimented, and their government does not want them to learn that the south is not the poverty-stricken cripple portrayed in Pyongyang’s propaganda. The south fears that its people may be subject to emotional blackmail and might be induced to spy for the north.
Nonetheless, the visits, scheduled to last four days, represent the first such interchange that the two governments have approved since the Korean War of 1950-53. From 1953 to 1972, when talks began between Red Cross societies, there was no contact between north and south--except for military armistice meetings at the border village of Panmunjom.
Six full sessions were held by those Red Cross delegates, ending in 1973. Working-level contacts continued until 1977, when the north halted them, and there was no contact until the Red Cross talks were resumed last fall.
Three other channels of discussion in addition to the Red Cross talks have now been opened, but no agreements have been reached. These focus on economic contacts, parliamentary discussions and sporting events.
Goal Is Reunification
At all four levels, the ultimate goal is the reunification of Korea.
The mutual distrust--and the fact that the Koreas have become parts of different worlds despite 5,000 years of shared history--was reaffirmed recently when 84 South Koreans traveling as a Red Cross delegation visited Pyongyang for the first time in 12 years.
On their second day in the North Korean capital, they found themselves watching a mass display, put on by 50,000 students, of Pyongyang’s version of modern Korean history. Portraits of President Kim Il Sung figured prominently in the display.
About 30 minutes into the program, after making a call to get Seoul’s approval, the South Koreans walked out. They called the performance repulsive.
The next morning, Li Jong Ryul, the chief North Korean Red Cross delegate, delivered a harangue to the southern delegates. He demanded an apology and threatened to cancel the Sept. 20-23 visits. Li also used up all the time that had been allotted for discussing proposals to reunite the separated relatives.
Up the Down Escalator
North Korea’s rage appeared to be genuine, a South Korean delegate said. At first, he said, the North Koreans tried to stop the South Koreans from leaving the stadium, going to such lengths as reversing the direction of the escalators. “Tension between the two sides was very great,” he said.
North Koreans on the streets of Pyongyang appeared to reflect the sense of insult. Before the walkout, they had waved to the southerners, but there were no waves as the southern delegation rode through the city after the stadium incident.
Still, the two sides agreed to go ahead with the next full session of the Red Cross talks, scheduled in Seoul on Nov. 26-27, and according to sources in the South Korean delegation, this indicates that the north will go ahead as planned with the family visits.
One delegate said the North Koreans are particularly keen on staging performances of folk art troupes in Seoul. These, he said, “are too important to North Korea for them not to go ahead.” The performances are designed to show South Koreans that the north “is not a militaristic, aggressive, abnormal society.”
Also, North Korea views the exchange as an opportunity “to impress the rest of the world with the idea that it is being friendly with the south,” the delegate went on, noting that North Korea has been trying to induce Japan and leading Western powers to provide it with the technological assistance to modernize its economy.
Choreography Was Political
Members of the southern delegation are still puzzled by the demonstration put on for them in Pyongyang, still wondering why the North Koreans subjected them to such a display of propaganda even though there had been an agreement to keep the event free of politics. The southerners had been told that they were being taken to see “gymnastic dancing.”
Lee Yung Dug, the chief South Korean Red Cross delegate, said the incident in Pyongyang was caused by “a wide gap in understanding between our two sides created by 40 years of confrontation.”
The exchange of propaganda blasts that followed, which wiped out any hope for substantive progress at that time, contained an element of irony. His North Korean counterpart, Li, had attended high school and college in Seoul before voluntarily going north sometime before 1950. And, in turn, the southern delegation chief is a native of Pyongyang.
Southerner Lee was informed that a sister might meet him sometime during his visit and, after the walkout from the stadium, the North Koreans announced that “a relative of a southern delegate” had been in the stadium. The North Koreans, however, did not offer Lee a chance to meet his sister as he left the stadium, the southerner said.
Twelve years ago, the Western diplomat recalled, North Korea tried to entice Foreign Minister Lee Bum Suk into making concessions by dangling the prospect of a meeting with an aunt in Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Lee was killed in 1983 in Burma, along with 16 other South Koreans traveling with President Chun, in a North Korean terrorist bombing. In 1973, he had headed a Red Cross mission to the North Korean capital.
North Softens Criticism
Despite the disappointment in Pyongyang, the Western diplomat said, contacts between north and south “have gone further than either side may have expected.” He said Pyongyang has become “much less stringent in its denunciations of the United States.”
“A new, soft line is being pushed by North Koreans at diplomatic posts around the world,” he said, “and there are indications of a flexibility not seen before.”
The diplomat said he does not rule out the possibility that Kim Il Sung might agree to a meeting with Chun, an idea that the South Korean president has repeatedly proposed. He also said discussions are quietly taking place on the possibility of South Korea and China setting up trade offices in each other’s capitals in exchange for Japan and North Korea permitting the same kind of offices in Tokyo and Pyongyang.
The feelers about a summit meeting and the trade offices are, in effect, a fifth channel of dialogue between the north and south, the diplomat said.
Swiss Talks Scheduled
And he described as “not inconsequential” the north-south talks scheduled for Oct. 8-9 in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the 1988 Olympic Games, to be held in Seoul.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, said at a recent news conference here that after meeting South Korean officials, he was very optimistic about the Lausanne talks. IOC officials are to take part in those talks, along with Olympic officials of South Korea and North Korea.
Samaranch visited Seoul after meeting a North Korean Olympic official in Moscow in July, and said, “Knowing the positions of both sides, the IOC is now in a position to study a proposal which could be mutually accepted.”
Although Samaranch and South Korean officials have rejected a northern proposal that the 1988 Olympics be co-hosted by both Korean states, they have not ruled out the staging of some preliminary events in North Korea to persuade the Communist authorities to take part in the games at Seoul.