Family divided by Korea's turbulent past seeks comfort in reunion

In a photograph taken on Oct 16, 2015 Park Yun-Dong, 90, sits in his apartment in Ansan, south of Seoul.
In a photograph taken on Oct 16, 2015 Park Yun-Dong, 90, sits in his apartment in Ansan, south of Seoul.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - The members of families split and then permanently separated by the 1950-53 Korean War carry many sad memories and stories, but few that are as unique and dramatic as Park Yun Dong's.

One of the lucky South Koreans selected to take part in a rare family reunion to be held in North Korea next week, the 90-year-old is bracing for an emotional meeting with the family of his younger brother, who died four years ago.

"There won't be another time. I'm old and I know we won't be meeting each other again," Park told AFP in his small, neat apartment in Ansan, about 40km south of Seoul.

"I want to tell them how important it is that the two sides of the family don't forget about each other," he said.

"And I want to them to know about the family history, about what happened to us." Millions of people were separated during the three-year Korean conflict, which sealed the division between the two countries.

Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.

But Park's family history is very particular.

He is what is known as a "Sakhalin Korean" - a community whose ordeal began in the 1940s and outlasted both the Korean War and the far longer Cold War that followed.

- The 'Sakhalin Koreans' -

Park was born in 1925 in Pyeongchang, now a well-known ski resort in the east of South Korea which will host next year's Winter Olympics.

At the time, the Korean peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule and when he was 18, Park was among 150,000 Koreans forced to relocate to Sakhalin - an island off the far eastern end of Russia - to work in coal mines and lumber yards providing raw materials to fuel Tokyo's World War II efforts.

In the end his entire family relocated, including his parents, three brothers and younger sister.

Days before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Soviet troops took over the island, and Park and his family suddenly found themselves - and their fate - under new administration.

The Japanese on Sakhalin were repatriated and nearly two thirds of the Koreans on the island joined them in the hope of finding opportunities in Japan's post-war reconstruction.

The roughly 43,000 Koreans who wanted to return home faced a dilemma as the Korean peninsula was now divided along the 38th parallel into the Soviet-controlled North and US-controlled South.

As the division hardened and then cemented with the Korean War, the plight of the Sakhalin Koreans became starker.

The Soviet Union had no diplomatic ties with the South Korea and - with the Cold War gathering pace - Seoul was wary of allowing back thousands of people whose loyalties might not be guaranteed.

"So, the only return option was to North Korea," said Park.

And that was the option his younger brother took, moving to the North in 1960 to study medicine.

In the hope that the political winds would shift, the rest of the family stayed, embarking on what would turn into half a century of stateless exile on Sakhalin.

- 'Totally abandoned' -

"We felt totally abandoned," he said. "Our one desire was to go home, but our homeland refused us." Only when the Soviet Union collapsed did things begin to change and Park, along with his two remaining brothers and sister, finally moved back to South Korea in 2000.

After his two brothers died, Park's thoughts increasingly turned to his younger brother in North Korea who, he discovered through relatives who remained in Sakhalin, had qualified as a doctor and was married with a son and daughter.

"When I learned he had died, I got a pain in my chest that has stayed with me ever since," Park said, fingering an old family photograph from the early days on Sakhalin.

His brother's children are now in their 40s and it is they who Park, accompanied by his sister, will meet next week at the reunion in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort.

"They are like my own children and I worry about them. I've heard they have had problems making ends meet," said Park, who has prepared care packages of winter clothes as a gift.

The reunion time is extremely limited, with each family only getting a few hours a day together over a three-day period.

"It's not nearly long enough, but I believe I will feel more comfortable, more at ease with myself after seeing them," Park said.

"I would like to tell them: 'Take care and be healthy'."