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Korean family reunions are a tenuous step toward progress

The Korean War divided more than a peninsula. As relations between the North and South improve, families are starting to be reunited after living apart -- and not knowing each other’s fate -- for decades. But will these powerful moments really improve relations with the North? Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Korean War divided more than a peninsula. It separated families.

    Now, as relations between the North and South seem to improve, some of those families are being reunited after decades apart

    Nick Schifrin reports on what these reunions might mean for South Korean and American relations with the North.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Park Do Shin has made the same walk for 60 years, stepping slowly over Seoul's sidewalks and into the offices of the Korean Red Cross, hoping to find a brother he hasn't seen since 1950.

    That's when North Korea swept into the South, killing thousands of South Korean soldiers and kidnapping others back to the North. Park's brother was a South Korean soldier. And, to this day, Park doesn't know his brother's fate.

    He starts the describe how much time he's spent, how many places he's gone looking for his brother.

    For so many in Korea, 68-year-old wounds haven't healed. But, today, some wounds are being patched. Across town, Kim Gwang-Ho also lost track of his brother in 1950 and assumed he was dead, but then the South Korean government this year told him his brother was alive living in the North.

    He packs for a reunion 68 years in the making, a government reunification handbook, a photo, so he can show off his wife.

  • Kim Gwang-Ho (through translator):

    I was very surprised and happy. But I was even more surprised to find out that he was still alive. I am 82 years old, and my brother is 78. My children joke whether or not I will even be able to recognize my brother.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Kim brothers found each other, bound by memories of a once united family. They swapped old photos, evidence of an era where relatives with the same tradition, language and culture weren't divided.

    Dozens of families are reuniting this week, a brother and sister who'd never met each other, a mother separated from her child for 70 years.

    Despite the emotion, North Korea agreed to host these meetings to make Kim Jong-un seem statesmanlike following a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, says former CIA analyst Jung Pak.

  • Jung Pak:

    It's a little bit of propaganda and it's a little — and it's a lot of optics. Look at the small number of people who are allowed to go. It measured in the dozens, rather than hundreds or thousands.

    I think Kim is trying to say that, I am fulfilling my part of that summit meeting that I had with President Moon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And North Korea says it's fulfilling promises made to President Trump at the June Singapore summit. Since then, North Korea has maintain the suspension on missile and nuclear tests, returned some remains of American troops killed in the Korean War, blew up the entrance to its primary nuclear test site, and, as seen in satellite photos, dismantled an engine testing site.

    That list is impressive, says former State Department official and longtime North Korea watcher Robert Carlin.

  • Robert Carlin:

    When was the last time we saw a North Korean leader throw away his cards? These were significant negotiating cards. Kim could have held them. He didn't. He wanted to lay them down, so he could get the process moving.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But critics say the process isn't moving fast enough. Today, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog said there is no evidence North Korea has taken any steps to stop its nuclear activities, a sign they're not serious about denuclearization says, Jung Pak.

  • Jung Pak:

    Looking at their words, looking at their actions, looking at things they could do, but they haven't done, which is inviting inspectors in, suggests to me that they're not that serious about denuclearization, and that they're trying to use denuclearization as a dangle to get the U.S. to have a peace declaration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    North and South Korea want to convert the 1953 armistice into a permanent peace. That's a distraction from the U.S. priority of denuclearization, says Jung Pak.

  • Jung Pak:

    And that's one of the things that the North Korean regime has always tried to do, is to divert attention away on to non-nuclear issues, so that people just get used to having a de facto nuclear weapons state across the border.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But from North Korea's perspective, it's the U.S. that diverting attention away from agreements made by President Trump and insisting on too many concessions too quickly.

  • Robert Carlin:

    Kim used the word synchronous. That is to say, they can move some on denuclearization if we will move some on these other things. So why are we holding back? Because we're stuck in this age-old problem: You go first. No, no, no, you go first.

    Well, there's always a way around that, if people just sit down and talk about it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What U.S. and North Korean officials are talking about is North Korea providing an inventory of its missile and nuclear program.

    U.S. officials say that would be a positive step that they could compare to their intelligence on what North Korea has to know if North Korea were lying.

    In the meantime, North and South Korea will work together, but even those these reunions feel powerful, their participants know they're temporary.

  • Kim Gwang-Ho (through translator):

    It's a bittersweet feeling. I'm happy to see my brother, but there is going to be a moment when we have to be separated again. I don't know what I will do in that moment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A reminder that, so far, all the progress that's been made is fragile and reversible.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A personal side we don't often see.

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