Korean Red Cross stepping up DNA testing for possible family reunions
By ASHLEY ROWLAND AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 8, 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — Amid a backlog of requests from aging war survivors, the Korean Red Cross is dramatically expanding its collection of genetic material from South Koreans separated from their families during the Korean War.
The Red Cross plans to collect 10,000 DNA tests and video messages this year from separated family members that could eventually be shared with their North Korean relatives.
Although the Red Cross has previously recorded video messages, this marks the largest number in a single year, said Jung Jae Eun, manager of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Team for the Korean Red Cross.
“They haven’t met their families for more than 65 years,” she said. “This is something the state can do when they are alive, and it will be impossible to do when they’re gone.”
The 10-13 minute videos allow survivors to greet their relatives in the North and share memories of their hometowns and families. Jung said the agency has recorded up to 4,000 videos per year since 2005, when it first began the program. Recordings were also made in 2008 and 2012-14.
Half of the 130,000 South Koreans who have applied to take part in the reunions, held sporadically since 2000, have died. Only 3,934 families have been reunited, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
The Red Cross was able to record only 1,202 video messages and complete 1,211 DNA tests last year based on the funding provided by the government, Jung said. The presidential Blue House ordered an increase in funding this year because survivors are dying at a rate of 300 to 400 per month, she said.
The DNA testing isn’t expected to connect family members in the North and South any time soon, and neither the tests nor the videos will be shared with the North now.
But building a genetic database of survivors could be used to confirm family relationships in case of eventual reunification — a goal of the South Korean government — and settle possible property disputes that might arise.
South Korea decided to push forward with the DNA testing because the North has refused to hold additional family reunions, a Unification Ministry official said last year.
The ministry is paying almost $900,000 for the DNA testing and about $1.76 million to record the video messages.
North Korea is not believed to be collecting genetic material of its separated family members.