K?mgangsan, or Mount K?mgang, is a 1,638 meter high mountain in southeast North Korea, less than 50 kilometers from the international border. Commonly known as Diamond Mountain, one of the meanings of K?mgang is ‘a firm heart in the face of truth.’ Considering what takes place at K?mgangsan, the significance of its name is particularly poignant. For K?mgangsan, or more specifically, K?mgangsan Tourist Region, is the meeting place of Korean families that were torn apart by the division of their land in 1953 into two irreconcilable ideological entities, North and South Korea.
Although military and other talks between the two sides have been held intermittently, especially since the 1990s, there have been numerous incursions and cross-border skirmishes over the years, mostly initiated by Pyongyang. Tensions have escalated in recent years due to the North’s unmonitored nuclear and missile program.
K?mgangsan Tourist Region is a separately administered region established by North Korea in 2002 to handle South Korean tourist traffic to the mountain. South Koreans have been allowed to visit the area since 1998 and the resort was built by the South Korean government and private companies to serve this tourism. Up until 2010, the site was managed jointly by both sides. Besides the family reunion centre, the resort includes a hotel, golf course, fire station and duty-free shop. Originally, the tourists arrived by cruise ship but there is now a road leading there through the demilitarized zone.
In July 2008 South Korea suspended all trips to the resort after a tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier when she unwittingly wandered into a restricted military zone. When after some 18 months the tours had not been resumed, North Korea seized South Korean properties at the resort, and threatened to freeze others. It also stated that there would be no family reunions until the tours were renewed (although one reunion did take place in September 2009, two years after the previous one in October 2007).
After protracted negotiations, and despite the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette with its crew of 46 in March, as well as a shooting incident in October 2010, North Korea agreed to allow two family reunions in October/early November 2010. However, further monthly meetings would only occur on the condition of the delivery from the South of hundreds of thousands of tons of rice and fertilizer. North Korea uses the family reunions to gain economic benefits, and every time one is held such aid has been sent to Pyongyang.
One of the consequences of the decades-long conflict between the two Koreas was the separation of families. Some one million Koreans were divided when the border was drawn and sealed in 1953. Hundreds of thousands had fled as refugees during the fighting and tens of thousands of others had gone south prior to the outbreak of war, desperate to find work in order to support their starving families in the north. Some South Korean soldiers and sailors were also abducted by North Korea over the years. Mail and phone communication between the citizens of the two Koreas is forbidden.
Nevertheless, according to American-born Jason Kim (in a personal communication to me), his grandfather, who found himself stranded after leaving his starving brothers and sisters in the north before the war to find work in the south, continued to visit the post office every day of his life in the hope of receiving a sign of life.
Some lucky families have managed to unite – albeit briefly – at the K?mgangsan Tourist Region. Such meetings are extremely rare, and tend to be jeopardized or cancelled in the event of an escalation in tensions between the two sides. Over 80,000 South Koreans and an unknown number of North Koreans have applied to participate in family reunions. 40,000 have since died or given up hope.
The selected few are chosen mainly by lottery (in the South, at least, the selection process in the North is unknown). A few (some 550 families) have been reunited by video. For the October/ November 2010 meetings arranged by the Red Cross, over 400 South Koreans were permitted to join slightly fewer than 100 relatives from the North in the first, while 130 South Koreans were selected to unite with 200 North Korean family members in the second, although these numbers cannot be verified completely.
The close monitoring of the already uncomfortable meetings increases their awkwardness. At the October 2010 reunion, how much of the hardships she suffered in the north would 71-year-old Woo Jong-hye have divulged to her 96 year-old mother Kim Lye-jong, who last saw her when she was 10 or 11 years old? And would Kim Lye-jong want to highlight the differences between their lives by describing the relative plenty in the south?
What was going on in the head of Kim Dong-yul, who left his wife and two-year-old daughter in the north in 1949, intending to return and bring them south, as the 82-year pensioner prepared to embrace his daughter, now a pensioner herself, some sixty years later. According to South Korean widow Lee Sun-ok, 80, she was ready to die without regrets after she had met her two younger sisters and a brother from the North at the September 2009 reunion of some 200 families.
On November 23, 2010, in the most serious clash in decades, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire after North Korean shells struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border. Two South Korean soldiers and two civilians were killed and several were injured. There was real fear of war breaking out between the two sides. Nevertheless, two months later, South Korea announced that it had agreed to resume low-level military talks with the North. The talks, which were also intended to pave the way for further Red Cross mediated reunions, quickly broke down. There may be a firm heart behind the reunions, but somewhere the truth gets lost in the politics and ideology that continue to separate the two sides.