South Korea builds DNA database to find relatives in North after unification
'I have hope as long as I am alive'
By ASHLEY ROWLAND AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 3, 2014
SEOUL, South Korea — Hong Nam-soon cries each time she watches broadcasts of North and South Korean relatives, inevitably filled with weeping and lingering hugs, reuniting decades after they were separated by war.
“When will I get my turn?” the 84-year-old woman asked recently from her comfortable Seoul high-rise apartment that is decorated with photos of her five sons and a plethora of grandchildren. But almost 65 years after her younger sister disappeared in the early days of the Korean War, Hong has new hope — however dim — that she will find her.
Earlier this month, Hong joined 1,200 elderly South Koreans taking part in a new program that collects their genetic data with the goal of someday linking them — or more likely, their descendants — with their long-lost family members in the North. Although the testing is unlikely to connect separated family members any time soon, officials say establishing the genetic database before it’s too late could play an important role in paving the way for a smoother reunification of the two Koreas — something many, if not most, South Koreans believe is an inevitability.
“Many of the separated family members are very, very old, and many of them are passing away,” a spokeswoman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said. All those participating are doing so voluntarily, and their genetic data will be saved in a database that will be used only to confirm family relationships, the ministry said. Officials say it could be expanded in coming years to include others who want to participate, if there is enough demand.
Preparing for eventual unification with the North is official government policy in South Korea.
The government, which is paying for the testing, decided to push forward with collecting DNA information because of the North’s refusal to hold additional family reunions, she said.
“We decided we need to do something on our own,” she said. “This is the thing we can do to help the separated families.”
A law passed by the National Assembly last year made it possible to collect DNA information without infringing on individual privacy rights, she said.
Even though North Korea isn’t collecting similar genetic data, the blood, hair and saliva samples now being gathered in the South could eventually be used to establish DNA ties with even distant relatives in the North, according to an official with the Korean Red Cross’ Inter-Korean Cooperation Team.
Establishing those blood ties, which are of paramount importance in Korea’s traditional Confucian society, could also help iron out potential legal disputes if the two Koreas ever reunite, such as determining whether a descendant from North Korea might have a legitimate claim to the property of a South Korean relative, the Red Cross official said.
According to the Unification Ministry, nearly 130,000 people have applied to take part in the family reunions, though only 3,934 families have met since 2000.
In the meantime, more than 60,000 have died while waiting for the chance to see their North Korean relatives. And time is running out for the remaining applicants, more than 10 percent of whom are at least 90 years old. Another 41.3 percent are in their 80s, and 29.1 percent are in their 70s.
Priority for DNA testing, which costs about $400 per person, is being given to the oldest applicants, according to the ministry. A Red Cross official said the goal is to eventually test all family members who want their genetic data kept on record.
'I have hope as long as I am alive'
Hong was a music teacher the southern city of Mokpo when her younger sister, Nam-sun, a pretty and vivacious nursing student in Seoul, disappeared in 1950, soon after North Korean troops invaded the capital. Her family didn’t realize Nam-sun was missing until they tried to contact her through her university, and her dormitory director told them she had disappeared without a trace.
Hong believes her sister may have been betrayed by a North Korean sympathizer at the university, and that troops from Pyongyang kidnapped her because her medical skills would be valuable to the war effort.
But more than six decades after her sister vanished, Hong has no idea where she may be — or if she is even alive.
“I have hope as long as I am alive,” said Hong, who said she can’t even guess what her sister’s life may have been like but believes her “strong character” has helped her survive.
Hong’s family has made futile attempts over the years to find Nam-sun. Hong has registered for family reunions held with North Korea, held sporadically when relations between the two Koreas are relatively amicable, but she has been told that she can’t participate until she is selected at random by a computer program.
Her son, Choung Pill-hoon, even went to the Chinese border about 10 years ago and broadcast a radio message into North Korea, searching for news about his aunt. He learned nothing.
“My mother has been disappointed so many times,” said Choung, who, as the eldest of her sons, believes it is his duty to fulfill his mother’s wish to find his aunt. Even learning that his aunt has died would give his mother closure.
“Her death would be news, but (there is) nothing, ” he said. “It hurts her heart.”
Choung said the chances of learning about his aunt’s fate are mediocre given the political tensions between the two Koreas. He worries that his mother, whose health is declining, expects to hear news about her sister soon and will be crushed if there are no immediate results from the genetic testing.
“It is a hopeless hope, that is the problem,” he said. “But it is better than nothing.”
Hong Nam-soon, 84, hopes a new genetic testing program for South Koreans separated from family members in the North during the Korean War will help her find her sister, who went missing during the early days of the Korean War. Officials say DNA material collected from some 1,200 elderly South Koreans this year may help their descendants -- and the descendants of their North Korean relatives -- someday find each other.
ASHLEY ROWLAND/STARS AND STRIPES