S. Koreans tape messages of regret as reunion hopes fade

This photograph taken on Sept 9, 2015 shows 70-year-old Kim Ik-Je (centre), one of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, during an interview by a Red Cross official at his book store in Seoul.
This photograph taken on Sept 9, 2015 shows 70-year-old Kim Ik-Je (centre), one of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, during an interview by a Red Cross official at his book store in Seoul. PHOTO: AFP

Fall-back videos being made as mostly aged 65,000 may not live to see kin in the north

SEOUL • "I miss you so much," 70-year-old Kim Ik Je tells the long-lost brother he knows he will almost certainly never see. As he begins to sob, the Red Cross video operator recording his words turns off the camera and allows Mr Kim time to collect himself before filming resumes at his bookstore in Seoul.

Just one of more than 65,000 mostly elderly South Koreans on a waiting list for the chance to be reunited with family members in the North, Mr Kim is resigned to the probability it will never happen.

So he opted for a fall-back service offered by the government: to tape a video message that his brother, or later generations of relatives, might one day be able to view.

Millions were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, and many have since died without seeing or hearing from their families on the other side of the border.

A reunion is scheduled late next month in a North Korean mountain resort, but it will be only the second such event in five years, with just 200 families taking part.

At 70, Mr Kim is actually in the waiting list's younger demographic, but like those in their 80s and 90s, he knows the chances of being selected for one of the rare reunions are extremely slim.

Red Cross officials implementing the video project say they hope the North might agree to video exchanges for those relatives unable to meet, but the sad reality is that the recordings will most likely be viewed posthumously.

"Frankly, I doubt this video will be seen by my brother or any other relatives before my death," Mr Kim said after he finished the recording. "But I agreed to do it because it's the only other way to try and get a message across. It's so difficult to be picked for the family reunions."

The Red Cross has taped some 4,000 messages after roughly half of those on the reunion waiting list responded positively to a 2012 survey on interest in the video project.

With the mortality rate of reunion candidates increasing, extra resources were allocated last month in an effort to get another 10,000 on video before the end of this year.

"We're pressed for time," said Red Cross official Jung Jae Eun. "Compared with 10 years ago, a lot of people are now quite infirm, and many may die in the next 10 years."

A parallel project has seen hundreds provide DNA samples. "The data will be an effective tool for verifying family relations in the future, and also in settling possible legal disputes" Ms Jung said.

Legal experts have said reunification could lead to complex inheritance claims on both sides of the border.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'S. Koreans tape messages of regret as reunion hopes fade'. Print Edition | Subscribe