Inside the South Korean Unification Ministry there sits a list of names of over 70,000 citizens who were separated from their family members in the North more than sixty years ago. When the Korean War came to a halt by way of ceasefire in 1953, the North and South became independent, but ideologically divided; and in so doing prevented all communication between families that had been split - literally down the middle at the 38th parallel.
On the 20th of February this year, however, the two states put aside their differences.
For the first time since 2010 they came together at the border that divides them to provide families with the opportunity to reunite.
One hundred citizens from North Korea, and another hundred of their relatives from the South met with each other, some for the first, and some for the last time, in the town of Panmunjom which straddles the states. For five days, relatives met every afternoon and were able to come to know those family members who had been absent from their lives. Two citizens from the South arrived by ambulance in order to take part in the meetings, while others in ill health exerted themselves beyond their capacity for this opportunity which they knew would not come again.
Once a family is chosen by random ballot to reunite, they are given only a single meeting. Reunions, which depend on the health of the relations between the Koreas are also infrequent, with less than 20 having taken place since 1985 when they were established. For many, the goodbye is necessarily final, and there is a growing worry that the majority of those who were alive throughout the Korean War will not live long enough to see their relatives again.
Although the road to good relations may be long for the two Koreas, the family reunions they have allowed to go forth in the last month represents a small step in the right direction.
In the late 1960’s, West and East Germany existed in a similar state, and a future of peace for the two countries looked unpromising. But in 1990, when East Germany elected to dissolve itself as an independent country and instead become part of the West, it was the result of tireless efforts for reunification on both sides: efforts that were started by the small gesture of familial reunification. Today, less than 30 years later, Germany is a decisive and most importantly a peaceful country, and one that leads its region and the world in economic and social spheres. Those who have no confidence in a future of peace for North and South Korea should be reassured by Germany’s example.
The reconciliatory spirit demonstrated by the Korean family reunifications of this past February are also indicative of the tangible presence of the Pillars of Peace - a conceptual framework designed by the Institute for Economics and Peace that explains how attitudes, institutions, and structures can build and support peace in society. In particular, the family reunifications in Korea are strongly related to ‘Acceptance of the Rights of Others’, a Pillar that describes the ways in which respect for diversity in society builds stronger community ties, which in turn encourages resilience in the case of external shocks (such as the Global Financial Crisis) and closer ties between individuals and groups, that work to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict.
Ultimately, even informal social acceptance within communities builds peace between individuals, which can then transform into group, and state level peace - even if the process starts with only one family at a time.
Levels of peace in North and South Korea are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum. South Korea is among the top 50 most peaceful countries, ranked 47th of 162 countries on the 2013 Global Peace Index (GPI); while North Korea is one of the ten least peaceful countries, along with conflict ridden countries such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.
North Korea is ranked 1st worldwide for violence containment spending, meaning that it spends more on preventing and containing violence than any other country in the world. According to the Economic Cost of Violence Containment, North Korea spends 27.5% of GDP on violence containment, which reached a total of US$10,980 million in 2012.
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