Korea borders open to allow long awaited reunions

Emotional scenes as first family reunions in more than three years take place on the divided Korean Peninsula


Lee Beom-ju (86) had little to say at first. "I am sorry, I am sorry," he told his long-lost younger brother and sister in North Korea when he finally met them today, during the first family reunions on the divided Korean Peninsula in more than three years.

Mr Lee, now a South Korean citizen, fled the North in 1951 during the Korean War. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the peninsula still divided. Until today, Mr Lee had not seen his family since, living with a sense of guilt for failing to look after them as the eldest son. Hwa-ja, the little sister he last saw 63 years ago, is now a 72-year-old grandmother.

"Grandfather told me to run, run and go to the south, away from the war, because I was his eldest grandson," Mr Lee said in tears, explaining to his sister and his brother, Yoon-ju (67) why he had to leave them behind. "I am sorry."

Mr Lee was among 83 elderly South Koreans, including a 96-year-old grandmother, who crossed the border in buses and ambulances to meet 178 North Korean relatives at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea.

The rival governments agreed to the family reunions as their first serious gesture toward easing frayed ties and rebuilding trust after several years of high tensions caused by the North's nuclear tests and armed provocations against the South.

The reunions bore witness to the pain that the long political divide on the peninsula has inflicted upon "separated families," whose members were torn apart during the three-year war. Graying sons and sisters hugged and collapsed in tears on the laps of their parents and brothers, many of whom were so old and weak that they had to make the trip across the border in wheelchairs.

"I never knew it would take so long," Lee Sun-hyang (88) told her North Korean brother Yun-geun (71) according to pool reports from the South Korean news media. Foreign reporters were not allowed to cover the event.

"Father's last wish in his deathbed was that I should look and find you," Kim Myeong-bok (66) told his North Korean sister, Myeong-ja (68) who was the only member of his family left in the North. Lee Young-sil (88) who has Alzheimer's, did not recognise her North Korean sister and daughter.

A 93-year-old man named Kang Neung-hwan met the North Korean son born after he fled to the South. The separation has been so long that some carried their prewar photos to help their siblings recognise them. They also packed photos of their hometowns, as well as underwear and other gifts for their relatives in the impoverished North.

The family reunions are a highly emotional issue and a barometer of the status of relations on the peninsula. The two Koreas agreed to revive the humanitarian program last week after the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for improved relations with the South during his New Year's Day speech.

But the family meetings also provide a glaring testimony to how far the two political systems have drifted apart. In the past six decades, a totalitarian regime has taken root in the North while the South evolved into a democracy and globalised economy. During past reunions, relatives from the North showed far less emotion, at least while they were being watched by North Korean officials and media.

They often puzzled their South Korean relatives by launching into long speeches praising their "great leader" and blaming the "American imperialists" for the Korean divide.

This week's reunions last until Saturday. From Saturday to Monday, a separate group of 88 North Koreans will arrive in Diamond Mountain to meet 361 relatives who will travel from the South.

For these elderly people, the meetings will most likely be their last chance to see their relatives before they die. Their initial tearful joy is replaced by their heartbreak as they bid farewell at the end of the brief reunion.

In the past, sisters and daughters clung at the windows of the departing buses. Fathers told sons the dates of their grandparents' death so they could continue the all-important Confucian rites of ancestral worship.

Millions of Koreans were separated from relatives when the peninsula was divided into the communist North and the pro-American South at the end of World War II in 1945.

Since the subsequent war, no exchanges of letters, telephone calls or emails have been allowed between North and South Koreans, and the occasional government-arranged reunions were about their only chance to meet relatives.

Those who participated in the reunions this week included two of the hundreds of South Korean fishermen who were taken to the North during postwar years and never returned home. They met their brothers from the South. The humanitarian wishes of the separated families have always been subject to the political mood between the two governments.

It was not until 1985 when the governments agreed to hold their first family reunions. For the next 15 years, there was no reunion. A breakthrough came when Kim Dae-jung, then the president of South Korea, traveled to Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000.

After that, the two Koreas held up to three rounds of reunions a year until 2008, when a conservative government deeply critical of the North's nuclear weapons program took power in Seoul, ending South Korea's previous "Sunshine Policy" of pursuing political reconciliation with the North through aid and investment.

The family reunions were revived in 2009 but were suspended again the following year amid souring relations. A total of 22,000 people from both Koreas participated in the past reunions. About 71,000 South Koreans - more than half of whom are 80 or older - remain on a waiting list for a chance to meet with relatives in the North. South Korean participants are selected by lottery. It is unclear how the North chooses theirs.

Of those on the waiting list, 3,800 die each year without fulfilling their dreams. South Korea had originally chosen 100 people after the two governments agreed to reunions in August. But the deal quickly collapsed and some of them have since died or have become too weak to make the trip across the border, which they last crossed during the war.

Earlier today, Kim Seom-gyeong (91) arrived in an ambulance at Sokcho, a town in northeastern South Korea where the government gathered South Korean participants before taking them across the border.

"Even if I die, I will die in the Diamond Mountain," Mr Kim was quoted as saying by the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Later, he met his son and daughter, the pool reports said.


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