Bridging the family gap between South and North Korea

Kim Kyung-Jae has had success in reconnecting some of the tens of thousands of family members separated for decades by the world’s last Cold War frontier, the one between North and South Korea.

There are no civilian mail or phone connections across the closely guarded inter-Korean border, and many do not even know whether their loved ones are still alive. Sporadic reunions arranged by the two sides since 2000 have brought together only a fraction of those seeking news, and have been halted because of political tensions.

Kim Kyung-Jae and his colleagues in a nine-member foundation called the Separated Family Union try to bridge that gap, using the postal systems of third countries or brokers. Kim sends about 70 to 80 letters and packages every year to North Koreans at the request of families in the South. It takes roughly 30 days for letters to arrive and another 30 days for a reply to come back. In the case of letters, Kim mails them from Japan, where he is based. But Tokyo restricts the contents of packages to the North to comply with UN sanctions, so those are sent through China.

Brokers handle their passage through the Chinese postal system and are also used to track down long-lost family members. For the professional intermediaries who cross the border between China and North Korea, a home town is all that is necessary to discover whether relatives are still alive, and if so, their address.

Sometimes even letters cannot be sent by a public route, in which case Shim Goo-Seob, co-founder of the foundation, takes over and arranges for a broker to make a more unorthodox delivery. The document could be tied to a rock and thrown over a narrow section of the Yalu river border with China, or sneaked through in a container truck. Until a few years ago all postal traffic was one-way, with South Koreans looking for relatives in the North. But now many North Koreans are seeking family members across the border through the brokers, Kim said.

Read more