Video conferencing was designed to conquer the tyranny of distance, but it can cross political barriers as well. On the Korean peninsula, it could soon begin doing both.
According to the Korea Times, families separated by the divide between North and South Korea could begin holding face-to-face cross-border meetings by video conference this year. The online paper quoted a spokesperson from the South Korea Ministry of Unification as saying that the digital family reunions would be part of inter-Korean exchange programs on humanitarian grounds.
North and South Korea have allowed separated families to reunite on several occasions since the mid-1980s, but the meetings have generally been kept to tight schedules and can be physically demanding for the aging members of the divided generation.
A few video conferencing reunions have also taken place, and they allow family members to speak to one another without having to undertake a lengthy physical journey. Whether the program described above goes ahead or not, it is a powerful reminder of how the internet and video conferencing can create new pathways for human interaction.
How Korean Families Became Separated
More than 57,000 people on either side of the Korean political divide are members of separated families. The two countries were initially divided between Soviet and U.S. control following the defeat of its colonial ruler Japan at the end of World War II. The three-year Korean War was fought in the early 1950s along capitalist and communist lines and the ensuing independent states have allowed little cross-border movement in the more than six decades that have since passed.
As a result of that long division, most of the people affected by the separation are elderly. In fact, according to the Korea Times, more than 40% are in their 80s and around 20% are 90 and older. Any kind of lengthy physical travel at those ages is going to be arduous–or even impossible. Once you add the emotion of seeing family members for the first time in years and the pressure of doing so under strict political control, such a trip across the border could become extremely traumatic.
That’s why switching to a digital format could be such a welcome initiative. North Korea has some of the harshest internet and mobile communication restrictions in the world, so family members aren’t likely to be able to Skype each other from their own homes on a regular basis any time soon. However, removing the need to trek all the way across a fraught military crossing is undoubtedly going to make things easier–and video conferencing has often been used to aid uncomfortable journeys.
Using Video Calling to Travel Safely
Video conferencing is regularly used to stage political discussions around the world. In fact, the U.S. and the Koreas have used it to conduct preliminary meetings ahead of major international conferences. In December of last year. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited his South Korean counterpart by video conference, and a special South Korean and U.S. working group met the same way in January 2019 to discuss the digital family reunion program detailed above.
Video conferencing has been used in much more hostile environments as well. U.S. doctors, for example, have used video calls to provide real-time assistance to medical professionals in war-torn Syria. The remote specialists can safely supervise surgeries, review x-rays, read lab results, and diagnose patients without having to leave U.S. soil.
Elsewhere in the world, activist organizations such as environmental watchdog Global Witness use video conferencing to maintain live contact with staff in hazardous locations.
Video conferencing lets people safely undertake difficult journeys, and it does so in an intimate, face-to-face manner.
Even back within the comforts of the U.S., video conferencing is used to stage inmate visitations within the stressful, intimidating, and security-conscious confines of prisons–in some cases, virtual prison visits are the only link inmates have to the outside world.
In each scenario, the benefit of video conferencing is twofold. It lets people safely undertake difficult journeys, and it does so in an intimate, face-to-face manner.
A Digital Family Reunion Via Video Call
Those two benefits are what is so potentially exciting about the Korean digital family reunion program. Even if North Korea is reluctant to open its digital highway to video calls from private homes, the video meetings wouldn’t need to involve excessive travel or an intimidating military presence.
The necessary technology is no more cumbersome than a laptop, a broadband connection, and a quality webcam–and today, a state-of-the-art 4K webcam costs less than $200. That means that family reunion call centers could be set up in major cities and towns on either side of the Korean border. Elderly residents who would otherwise have to brave long journeys and stressful border crossings could instead be driven to their nearest call center by family members and could be face-to-face in front of their loved ones in a fraction of the time.
First-generation and migrant families can now replace the telephone call back to their relatives with a video version.
Of course, such digital family reunions could be staged under far less politically charged conditions to bring together family members scattered across the globe. First-generation and migrant families, for instance, can now replace the telephone call back to their relatives with a video version. Not only does the technology add a critical visual component, but international video calls across platforms such as Skype are free as long as you avoid any landline connections.
Perhaps one day the Koreas will reach a point of calm that allows cross-border families to regularly engage in video calls. Perhaps this year marks the beginning of a political climate that allows the Korean people to enjoy the same long-distance technology the rest of us currently have at our disposal for free.