Korean families reunite after 70 years

Around 180 families torn apart by the 1950-53 Korean War will be temporarily reunited in North Korea starting Monday after the two Koreas renewed exchanges this year following a stand-off over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
North and South Korean family members meeting yesterday in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort near the Demilitarised Zone. The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missi
North and South Korean family members meeting yesterday in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort near the Demilitarised Zone. The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations worsened.PHOTO: YONHAP

Over three days, the 89 families involved will spend only about 11 hours together

SOKCHO (South Korea) • With tears and cries, dozens of elderly and frail South and North Korean family members met yesterday for the first time since the peninsula and their relationships were torn apart by war nearly 70 years ago.

Clasping one another, they tried to bridge the decades of separation through physical contact and by showing one another pictures of their relatives.

Many of the North Korean women were clad in traditional dresses, known as hanbok in the South and joseon-ot in the North, and all had the ubiquitous badges of the North's founder Kim Il Sung or his son and successor Kim Jong Il, while the southerners wore their best suits.

As soon as 99-year-old South Korean Han Shin-ja approached her table, her two daughters - aged 69 and 72 - bowed their heads deeply towards her and burst into tears.

Madam Han also broke down, rubbing her cheek against theirs and holding their hands tightly. "When I fled during the war...," she began, choking back tears as if she were about to apologise for leaving them behind.

Millions of people were swept apart by the 1950-53 Korean War, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children and husbands and wives.

Hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war and the peninsula split by the impenetrable Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), with all direct civilian exchanges - even mundane family news - banned.

OVERCOME WITH EMOTION

I never imagined this day would come. I didn't even know if he was alive or not.

MADAM LEE KEUM-SEOM, 92, on meeting her son for the first time since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband when they fled south.

THE PASSING OF TIME

How are you so old?

MR KIM DAL-IN, 92, asked his sister, Madam Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence. 

SEPARATED BY WAR

When I fled home in the war...

SOUTH KOREAN HAN SHIN-JA, 99, choking back tears after meeting her two daughters, aged 69 and 72, as if she were about to apologise for leaving them behind.

The three-day reunion at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea, near the DMZ, is the first in three years and follows a diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.

According to reports, the event began with popular North Korean song Nice To Meet You - also well-known in the South - blaring out from speakers.

Madam Lee Keum-seom, now tiny and frail at 92, met her son for the first time since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband as they fled.

At the time, Mr Ri Sang Chol was aged just four. Madam Lee shouted his name when she saw the now 71-year-old, before hugging him as both were overcome with emotion.

Her son showed her pictures of his family in the North - including her late husband - telling her: "This is a photo of father."

Before leaving for the meeting, Madam Lee told Agence France-Presse: "I never imagined this day would come. I didn't even know if he was alive or not."

With time taking its toll, such parent-child reunions have become rare. Since 2000, the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions, but most of the more than 130,000 southerners who signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died.

More than half the survivors are aged over 80, with this year's oldest participant, Mr Baik Sung-kyu, aged 101.

South Korean Park Ki-dong, 82, met his two North Korean siblings, who had brought dozens of family photos with them. Mr Pak Sam Dong pointed at one of the images, telling his brother: "This is you."

The older man stared at the picture silently, deep in thought, while his North Korean sister quietly wiped tears from her eyes.

The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations worsened.

  • 20

    Number of reunions the two Koreas have held since 2000, though most of the more than 130,000 southerners who signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died. 

 
 

But after a rapid diplomatic thaw, the North's leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in agreed to restart them at their first summit in April in the DMZ.

Families at previous reunions have often found it a bittersweet experience, with some complaining about the short time they were allowed together and others lamenting the ideological gaps between them after decades apart.

Some of those selected for this year's reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and they could meet only more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.

Over three days, the 89 families will spend only about 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents.

They will have only three hours in private before they are separated once again tomorrow, in all likelihood for the final time.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2018, with the headline 'Korean families reunite after 70 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe