End of Korean War could reunite thousands of separated families after decades apart

Click to play video: 'Landmark meeting: North Korea, South Korea pledge peace' Landmark meeting: North Korea, South Korea pledge peace
WATCH: Kim Jong Un became the first North Korea leader to cross into South Korean territory since the fighting of the Korean War ended in 1953. Jeff Semple reports on the promises made between North and South Korea – Apr 27, 2018

In a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean Moon Jae-in, the two state heads committed to officially ending the decades-long Korean war.

While a plethora of changes could result from this, including decreased aggression on the Korean peninsula and ceasing all disparaging propaganda materials from both sides, the most pressing impact may be the reunification of families separated by the warring states.

READ MORE: World must ‘not assume anything’ when it comes Korea peace deal, Freeland says

“The two leaders declare before our people of 80 million and the entire world there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new age of peace has begun,” a joint statement from the two sides said.

An official peace treaty has yet to be signed, and would require the agreement of the United States and China under a United Nations flag. However, the two sides have already agreed to hold “reunion programs” on August 15 of this year — the day both Koreas celebrate their independence from Japanese colonization.

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These reunions are an emotional issue. The last of the family visits took place at the end of 2015, though the program fell apart amid worsening relations.

“When those happened, they were deeply emotional events. There were histrionics to it that were heart-wrenching. Because of the recognition that these were only temporary and very limited. So the agony, the suffering that lays beneath the surface in this is really an acute and moving emotional story,” explained Paul Evans, a professor of Asian and Trans Pacific Affairs with the University of British Columbia.

He notes however, that while talks of family meetings, and an eventual end to the war that divided them in the first place, are hopeful, there are several obstacles that need to be overcome throughout peace talks in order for this to commence.

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“Each side is using these family reunions or political purposes. That is the real nature of the discussions between the north and the south,” said Evans.

He went on to explain that while the South is quite open to the prospect of allowing families to visit each other more freely — knowing that the majority of the travel would be from the North to the South — the North has always used these families as “pawns in a political game” that could be leveraged to gain concessions in other areas.

This isn’t the first time discussions have taken place regarding the division of families across the border. In fact, the two Koreas have broached the possibility of allowing family visits multiple times over the past few decades.

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office last May, his administration quickly asked that the visits be allowed to resume, though reports indicate that North Korea never responded.

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North Korean state media had implied that visits could resume if South Korea sent back a dozen North Korean waitresses who defected to the South after working at a restaurant in China, though nothing appears to have come from the suggestion.

This past week, however, the leaders were all smiles as they shook hands at the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade and pledged to work with the United States and China to declare an official end to the 1950s conflict.

READ MORE: Koreas pledge ‘era of peace’ — a look back at the 65 years it took to get here

“A new history starts now. An age of peace, from the starting point of history,” Jong-un wrote in Korean in a guest book in the South’s Peace House before talks began.

Although there are still no guarantees, an official end to the Korean war could see thousands of families reunited permanently, a day thousands of Koreans have eagerly awaited for decades.

“There is going to be rejoicing. And I’m sure it’s happening now at just even a fragile and tentative sign at a movement towards a peace process to end the Korean War,” said Evans.

Government figures from March show that 131,447 South Koreans have registered as separated families since 1988. However, over 70,000 have since passed away, and a quarter of those still alive are over 90 years old.

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READ MORE: Donald Trump tweets, ‘KOREAN WAR TO END!’ in wake of historic meeting

The fighting of the Korean war ended in 1953, though no official peace treaty was ever signed. As a result, over 60,000 families torn apart by hostility between the two nations remain separated today, and likely haven’t seen each other in almost 70 years.

In order for an official peace treaty to be reached, Evans notes that it’ll require more than just the cooperation of the two Koreas. Other parties involved in the Korean War, including the United States, China, and even Canada, will “need to be persuaded to come along.”

“This was not just a North-South conflict, so a North-South peace process is going to be a very complicated process. But until you have the United States involved in this, [and] the other military affairs commissions members, including Canada, you’re going to need a peace treaty involving several countries.”

READ MORE: Donald Trump says talks over potential summit with North Korea ‘going very well’

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has exchanged nuclear threats and personal insults with Kim Jong-un in the past year, welcomed the Korean talks while injecting a small note of caution.

“After a furious year of missile launches and Nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North and South Korea is now taking place. Good things are happening, but only time will tell!” he said on Twitter.

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He later added: “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”

-With files from the Associated Press, Reuters. 

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