Using family as a weapon

I once heard a North Korean defector say that the thing he missed most about his home country was his girlfriend. A defector friend of mine has been able to speak to her sister by Chinese cell phone from time to time, but hasn’t been able to see her sister or her father for years.

For defectors, of course, there’s no hope of family reunions through legal means. The highly theatrical family reunions between North and South Koreans are for family members who were separated during the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953. Time and again, North Korea has raised the hopes of these separated family members that they might be able to spend a few hours with their loved ones, only to dash them at the last minute. And now, having offered the reunions in the first place, North Korea is once again threatening to cancel them.

North Korea is notorious for using families as a political weapon. Its system of punishing families to the third generation for the (perceived) crimes of an individual is a powerful tool of manipulation and repression that extends well beyond North Korea’s borders, preventing North Korean defectors from speaking out publicly or forming coherent political identities in South Korea and elsewhere.

In taunting the aging survivors of the Korean War once again, North Korea’s regime is further demonstrating its profound inhumanity. These people are not criminals — not even in the warped perception of the North Korean government. They are simply pawns, individuals whose feelings matter only insofar as they can be used for the regime’s political purposes. Their personal human suffering is irrelevant. It is hard to countenance a regime that shows such utter contempt for its own citizens.