Tears as Korean families separated by war reunite after 65 years
Almost 90 families hold brief reunions as relations between countries continue to thaw
Siblings long assumed dead and parents who were separated from their children have come face to face for the first time in more than six decades as 89 families from the two Koreas were reunited in North Korea on Monday.
The reunions, the first in three years, are a symbol of the painful divisions that remain long after the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. Families embraced and many cried to the point of being unable to speak for several minutes.
Han Shin-ja (99), was reunited with two of her daughters, 72 and 71, both wearing traditional Korean hanbok dresses. All three were overcome with emotion as they held each other close. “When I fled home in the war …” Han began to say, before becoming too choked up to speak.
The clothing, which the two countries have in common, is a reminder of their shared history, but the significance of the meeting was made even more powerful by the fact that if past reunions are any indication, this will be their only chance to meet.
“Uncles, take my deep bow,” said Seo Soon-gyo (55), as her 87-year-old father, Seo Jin-ho, met two younger brothers, Chan Ho and Won Ho.
About 330 South Koreans from 89 families, many of them in wheelchairs, gathered with 185 lost relatives from North Korea, embracing with tears, joy and disbelief.
The brief reunions, lasting only 11 hours, took place in the North Korean tourist resort on Mount Kumgang. The two Koreas renewed exchanges this year following a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Lee Su-nam, from South Korea, saw his brother Lee Jong-seong for the first time in 68 years. In an interview before the reunion he described himself as very lucky to have the opportunity, but added: “I think there’s going to be a lot of difference, in the language, in the way of thinking, and the lifestyles we lived. I can’t ask him what kind of jobs he’s had and the troubles he’s had under the North Korean regime.”
On Monday he wept so hard that North Korean staff had to console him.
The reunions highlight the stark differences that remain between the two countries. South Koreans prepared gifts for their relatives, often basic necessities such as winter jackets, socks, underwear, medicine, toothpaste and food. Choco Pies, a marshmallow between two pieces of cake and covered in chocolate, are particularly popular in North Korea, and were previously offered as bonuses to workers in joint manufacturing projects.
Families are discouraged from giving cash, for fear it may be taken by North Korean authorities, and the South Korean government has told its citizens to politely refuse any gifts with propagandistic overtones.
In South Korea, about 132,600 individuals are listed as coming from separated families, but the Red Cross has identified only 57,000 survivors. Of those, 41 per cent are in their 80s and 21 per cent are in their 90s, according to government data. The two countries have conducted 20 rounds of reunions since they began in 2000.
The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, himself a member of a separated family from North Korea’s eastern port city of Hungnam, said on Monday that the reunions should be sharply scaled up, held regularly and include exchanges of visits and letters.
“It is a shame for both governments in the South and the North that many of the families have passed away without knowing whether or not their lost relatives were alive,” Mr Moon told a meeting with presidential secretaries. “Expanding and accelerating family reunions is a top priority among humanitarian projects to be carried out by the two Koreas.” – Guardian