South Koreans cross into North for emotional family reunion

South Koreans chosen to attend a family reunion event with their North Korean relatives, making their way to North Korea, on Oct 20, 2015.
South Koreans chosen to attend a family reunion event with their North Korean relatives, making their way to North Korea, on Oct 20, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SOKCHO, South Korea (AFP) - Several hundred South Koreans, mostly elderly, headed for North Korea on Tuesday (Oct 20) for a rare, emotional meeting with relatives they have either never met or last saw more than six decades ago.

A fleet of buses led by four black sedans flying Red Cross flags brought the family members from a resort in the port city of Sokcho to the heavily fortified border in the morning.

After crossing the frontier that has divided the peninsula - and its people - since the 1950-53 Korean War, the convoy will drive to North Korea's Mount Kumgang where the three-day reunion will begin in the afternoon.

Only the second such reunion in the past five years, it was the result of an agreement the two Koreas reached in August to ease tensions that had pushed them to the brink of armed conflict.

Millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the Korean War, which saw the frontline yo-yo from the south of the Korean peninsula to the northern border with China and back again.

The chaos and devastation separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.

With more than 65,000 South Koreans currently on the waiting list for a reunion spot, those headed for Mount Kumgang on Tuesday represented a very fortunate minority.

"I couldn't sleep at all last night," said 82-year-old Lee Joo Kuk, sporting a tag with his name, age and the name of the elder brother he will be meeting in Mount Kumgang.

'LIKE HE'S RESURRECTED'

"Our family was sure he was dead. We even held memorial rituals for him every year," Lee said.

"But then I got the news that he was alive and wanted to see us. It's like he's been resurrected," he told AFP.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the numbers clamouring for a chance to take part have always far outstripped those actually selected.

Among the generation that actually experienced the division of their families, the vast majority died without ever having any contact with their relatives in the North.

Because the Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.

The two ambulances following the South Korean buses on Tuesday testified to the advanced age and, in many cases, poor health, of those making the journey.

More than 20 people required wheelchairs for mobility and one woman needed treatment and oxygen before boarding her bus.

Kim Ok Ja, 72 and unable to speak, was going to meet her elder brother who was forcibly recruited into the advancing North Korean army in 1951.

LAST CHANCE

"We just assumed he was dead," said Kim's husband, who was accompanying her for the reunion. "Realistically, we know this is the only and last chance we have for a meeting.

"But his parents are buried in his hometown, so we hope that in the future either he or his children will be able to visit there," he said.

After so many years of waiting, the reunions are cruelly short.

Over the next three days, they will sit down with their North Korean relatives six times - both in private and in public.

Each interaction only lasts two hours, meaning the family members have a total of just 12 hours to mitigate the trauma of more than six decades of separation.

And for those in their 80s and 90s, the final farewell on Thursday after three days is tainted by the near-certainty that there will never be another meeting.

In a reflection of the stark economic divide between the two Koreas, all the South Korean families had brought gift packages, including clothes, watches, medicine, food and - in most cases - several thousand dollars in cash.

After the last reunion, in February 2012, some South Koreans complained that their Northern relatives had felt obliged to deliver lengthy political sermons parroting Pyongyang's official propaganda.

Others said they seemed more interested in what gifts they had brought than in talking about their family history or catching up with the lost decades.