65 years after the Korean war tore families apart by dividing the country, around 90 families are reuniting briefly this week for 11 hours over a span of three days starting from Monday. Frail old South Koreans, many on wheelchairs accompanied by other family members, wept as they hugged their siblings, parents and children in North Korea for the first time after the war.
While 100 families were chosen from each side of the border, only 83 North Korean and 89 South Korean families participated, because the rest of them realized that the relatives they had hoped to meet were not alive any more.
The South Korean families, chosen by a computerized lottery, were driven in a bus early on Monday from the the town of Sokcho in the north-east of South Korea, across the heavily guarded border, to a resort in Mount Kumgang in North Korea’s east coast. The first reunion session was held at 3 p.m
72-year-old Kim Gyong Sil and his sibling, 71-year-old Gyong Yong, clad in traditional Korean attire, anxiously waited at the entrance of the venue for their 99-year-old mother Han Shin-ja. On seeing her, a few minutes of silence followed, before the trio cried loudly, holding hands and rubbing their cheeks together.
“When I fled home in the war..”, the mother started, before breaking down in sobs, leaving the sentence incomplete. Her sons consoled her and said it was alright; their aunt had taken care of them.
Another 70-year-old North Korean, Ahn Jong-soon, repeatedly asked her South Korean father, Ahn Jong-ho, if he recognized her. The 100-year old man, almost deaf, could not hear her. He responded with tears.
“My dear, thank you for just being alive,” said 89-year-old South Korean, Hwang Woo-seok, as she hugged her 71-year-old North Korean daughter. Tears streaming down her face, 91-year-old South Korean Moon Hyun-sook caressed the faces of her North Korean sisters, aged 79 and 65, and asked, “How come you have aged so much?”
After decades of separation, many could not recognize their family members by sight. Names of hometown and parents were exchanged to help identify each other. Others carried with them photographs from their youth.
“I never imagined this day would come. I didn’t even know if he was alive or not,” 92-year-old South Korean, Lee Keum-seam told AFP, after meeting her North Korean son whom she had left behind when he was a four-year-old with her husband, when fleeing the war in panic.
Her son, showing a picture of her estranged husband, said, “Mother, this is how my father looked,” drawing more tears from her eyes.
At the time of fleeing the south during the war, few who had left behind their family had imagined that this separation would be permanent. According to the South Korean Unification Ministry’s estimates, between 600,000 and 700,000 South Koreans have immediate or extended family members separated from them in the North.
20,000 people have participated in 20 such reunions held since 1985. None of them will get a second chance. 57,000 people – of whom over 60% are over 80 years of age – are currently registered in South Korea for a chance to see their estranged family members in the North, of whom only around 90 families were selected in this round of reunion. After two more days of meeting, on Wednesday, these families, comprising 330 South Koreans and 185 North Koreans, will bid a painful farewell, knowing that they will never see each other again.
On Thursday, 88 more families from the South, comprising 469 members, are scheduled to attend another reunion to meet their separated loved ones from 83 North Korean families, comprising of 128 members.
Of the total 132,000 South Koreans who had registered to attend reunions, over 75,200 have died, without getting a chance to see their estranged parents, children or siblings on the other side of the border.
“They are dying without even finding out whether their loved ones are alive. This is a situation both the South and North Korean governments must consider extremely shameful,” South Korean President Moon Jae In – who had himself attended a reunion in 2004 to meet his aunt – said yesterday, calling for more reunions.
But the separated family members hope for more than just one chance to see their family members. An 81-year-old North Korean woman, who met her 88-year-old South Korean brother at the reunion yesterday, told him, “Brother, it would be really good if Korean unification happens. Let’s live together at least for one minute after unification before we die.”