GWEN IFILL: Now foreign correspondence, our occasional conversations with reporters stationed overseas for American news organizations; Margaret Warner has this one.
MARGARET WARNER: And tonight our correspondent is Indira Lakshmanan, Asia bureau chief for the "Boston Globe". Welcome back, Indira.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Perhaps the most remarkable story to come out of Asia this year - at least for those of us back here -- was the thawing of relations between the two Koreas and I'm thinking back to that incredible picture in June of the two leaders, Kim in Pyongyang, clinking the champagne glasses together. Tell us about that and what kind of impact, what kind of reaction South Koreans had to that.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: That was an amazing story, for me personally -- I cover all of Asia -- but I have to say that I think Korea was in a way not only the most emotional story of the year but also the most significant geopolitically. It was incredible for South Koreans at the time because keep in mind these are people who for half a century have grown up and matured being told that North Korea is the enemy -- experiencing all sorts of, you know, spy attacks, submarine incursions. I mean, for 50 years these two countries have technically been remaining at war, because in 1953 they signed an armistice, not a peace treaty. So to hear all of this and to have heard Kim Jong Il, the leader of South Korea, he has been painted -
MARGARET WARNER: -- of North Korea.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Sorry, of North Korea. He has been painted as a very strange person -- a drunkard, a womanizer, leading this, hermetic nation in a very, you know, Stalinist way. So to see the two of them practically bear hugging - as you say clinking champagne glasses, clasping hands singing a patriotic hymn together -- it was very moving for South Koreans -- and I really count that as the watershed in the change in perspective. I mean, normal South Korean people before the summit in June were quite wary of the thawing of the sunshine policy and afterwards there was a real sea change.
MARGARET WARNER: Then in August they had this family reunion, very modified I gather, just 100 families, North and South, that they allowed to get together. First of all, set the scene for that for us. How were these, why were these families separated? Why were there so many North Koreans in the South and South Koreans in the North?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Right. I think that - you know - first of all -- the family reunions -- and there have now been two of them since the June summit, were probably the single most important thing that came out of the agreement that the two Kims signed in June in Pyongyang. I say it's the most important thing because I genuinely believe that people to people contact between North and South are the most likely way that these two countries could possibly have an eventual reunification. It's the way that it happened in East and West Germany was when people were meeting across the border, they were able to talk to each other about, well, you the nation is not really like your leaders say it is. So each side, they were able to talk to each other and through family contacts. I mean, that is how the political part of it progressed. In answer to your question about how did that begin, the Korean War, as we know, from 1950 to 1953, cost about 2 million lives and it separated families. There are now 7.6 million people in South Korea who have relatives in the North. And the way that this happened was during the chaos of the three years of the Korean War there were some 1 million people who fled North Korea South of the 38th Parallel. And after the war was over, they were unable to return home. So that is one million of them right there. From the South to the North, there were both -- thousands and thousands of abductions that we know about -- people who were kidnapped. Many of them were local students who had special skills like a fabulous dancer or whatever.
MARGARET WARNER: You wrote about one.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Yes. I wrote about one in particular who was kidnapped from her high school. There were others who voluntarily joined the North Korea army because they believed that that was the way to have unification of their nation. So it was a combination of factors, but once the armistice was signed in '53, actually even before that, during the chaos of the war, it was impossible to cross that 38th Parallel. And those people, this is the saddest to me legacy of the war, is for 50 years they have had absolutely no contact between these families. I mean, these are people who literally didn't even know if their relatives were alive -- much less where exactly they were. They couldn't write letters; they couldn't make telephone calls - nothing. And people forget when they make the comparisons between German separation and Korean separation that in all the years of German separation and the Berlin Wall, they were, these separated families were allowed to write letters, make calls, send packages, and in the last years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were not thousands but literally millions of visits between families on either side of the Wall. And this is something which has been completely forbidden in Korea.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, judging from your stories and others, visits were carried out still in a very controlled way?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: You are absolutely right. And that was one of the most striking things. I mean, being in Seoul while this was happening, it was, you know they called them family reunions but really what they were were limited family visits. It was - you know -- 72 hours. It was 100 families, 100 individuals from the North who came to the South. They were allowed to meet five of their family members. So in one case I wrote about a lady who was the sixth. Okay. You know, it was, it was her brother who was coming. And she stood by the Sheraton Hotel holding up a sign with her brother's name on it. And when he was escorted out and walked by, she screamed, "Older brother, older brother. And you could see him looking at her and his face crinkled into this incredible, almost grotesque expression of pain because he wasn't allowed to step out of line to even greet his youngest sister.
MARGARET WARNER: Why so much rigid control?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I mean, North Korea as is, you know, talked about everyone know that is North Korea is one of the most controlled societies in the world still. And they had all sorts of intelligence agents who were traveling with their people and the governments just wanted to keep it very, very careful and straight. They didn't want anything to go wrong. So there was a very, very sad case actually, of one man who came from North Korea whose mother was so ill that she couldn't come to the hotels where these controlled visits were taking place. So for 72 hours, you know, he had come - he had waited 50 years, waited all this time to see his mother, and couldn't see her because he wasn't allowed to go to the house. So what they did in the 11th hour basically, the North Korean and South Korean officials got together and saw - and they decided, okay, here is the compromise. We can't let him go to her house because that is the hard and fast rule that they didn't want to break but we'll take her to a hospital and we'll allow him at 3:00 in the morning to go to the hospital. So he had one hour to see his mother in the middle of the night at least before he left.
MARGARET WARNER: So what do what do you think is the lasting or medium term impact of these two events?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I would actually go so far as to say three events because I would say the summit and the two reunions that we have had since then. I think that the reunions themselves are -- as I said before -- the most significant thing because it shows that North Korea is willing to carry through on its end of the bargain saying yes we will have this. There have been all sorts of things. They have had a cable optic link between the two. They've reopened liaison offices in the border truce village. They are building a railroad now to link North and South. There are all sorts of things that are taking place. I think that the lasting effect is the more that we have family reunions or limited family visits, the more sort of goodwill that is built up on both sides of the border.
MARGARET WARNER: But how much support is there in the South Korean public for reunification, which surely will be a very expensive, I mean, even if all the political and security obstacles can be overcome it's going to be an incredibly difficult and expensive thing?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: That's a very good question. And I think that there has been a radical change in people's feelings since the summit June. As I said, before the summit I think there was quite a bit of wariness about Kim Dae-Jung's sunshine policy. As we all know, Kim Dae-Jung, the South Korea president, has won the Nobel Peace Prize for that sunshine policy and for the summit and for the family reunions. There was weariness on the part of the South Korean public.
Afterwards, it was incredible to see the change. I mean, it was almost the pendulum swing, you know, so extremely the other direction, people started having Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, fan clubs, dolls, tee shirts, mugs with his image on it all in South Korea, because they thought, wow, this guy is actually able to get together with our leader and do something. So there has been, as I said, a wellspring of popular support for closer and closer relations. You point out that reunification would be extremely expensive. A lot of economists have estimated the price tag could be upwards of one trillion dollars. The North Korean economy is in much, much worse shape than the East German economy ever was frankly. Aide workers estimate that some 2 million people may have died of famine in the last several years.
There will -- also the proportion of the peninsula of the, that is on North Korea, the population is much larger than the East German population was in proportion, in relation. So that is very significant as well. On the other hand, again, I think the emotion of the family reunions has really swayed popular opinion in favor of little by little gradually trying to do something. I mean, one analyst who is actually from the sort of right of center political party that was in power before, Kim Dae-Jung, said to me, you know, one trillion dollars, if that is what it costs to buy the peace, you know, tell me where to sign.
A lot of people want that. I mean, the emotions of the family reunions were incredible. I mean, it was just for me being there, I wrote about this afterwards, you know, in the week of the reunions I wrote, you know, something like six pieces each day. Afterwards, I wrote a column writing about how taking into account all the extremely sad places I've been and sad things I've covered including being in Bosnian refugee camps, in East Timor during the crisis, I would say that the Korean reunions were in a way the saddest thing I've ever covered because it's something we can all right to - a mother not seeing her son for 50 years -- a husband not seeing his wife for 50 years - and so those people being able to come back together, it was, it was very emotional.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Indira, thanks very much. Thanks for coming in.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Thank you for having me.