Korean Families, Separated for 6 Decades, Are Briefly Reunited
SEOUL, South Korea — For two hours on Monday, a 92-year-old woman held her son’s hand and looked him in the eyes for the first time in more than 65 years, as family members from North and South Korea were permitted a rare chance to see one another after war divided their country and separated relatives.
The son, Ri Sang-chol, a 71-year-old North Korean, looked older than his mother, Lee Geum-seom, who has spent more than six decades in the South, since fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953.
Separated in the chaos of the war, the pair had not seen each other — or communicated in any way — until Monday, when Ms. Lee and 88 other elderly South Koreans were allowed to cross the heavily armed border between the Koreas for a three-day reunion with family members in the North.
“Mother, this is father,” Mr. Ri said, showing Ms. Lee a photograph of her deceased husband, who had also stayed in the North.
Ms. Lee would not let go of her son’s hand during a two-hour group reunion on Monday at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeast North Korea, according to a pool report by a small group of South Korean journalists permitted to attend the event.
Ms. Lee bombarded her son with questions. “How many children do you have?” she asked. “Do you have a son?”
Like thousands of other war-torn families on the divided Korean Peninsula, the mother and son found themselves on opposite sides of a border when the fighting in the Korean War ended, unable to exchange letters, telephone calls or emails, much less meet. Each year, more than 3,000 elderly South Koreans die without fulfilling their dreams of seeing long-lost loved ones in the North.
In all, about 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of reunions since 1985, when the first such gatherings were organized. Selected participants are not allowed a second chance to see their relatives, and the last round of reunions was in 2015.
A computerized lottery selected Ms. Lee as one of the South Koreans allowed to attend the reunion, which the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to at a landmark summit meeting in April.
A separate group of 83 elderly North Koreans will arrive at the Diamond Mountain resort on Friday for a three-day reunion with their South Korean relatives.
The reunions open a rare window onto one of the most emotional legacies of the Korean War.
Although the two countries remain locked in a political standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program, these reunions are seen as an important step toward reaffirming the countries’ shared history and culture. But they are also a sobering reminder of how far apart the capitalist South and the totalitarian North have drifted since the war.
Ravaged by chronic food shortages, North Korean teenagers are several inches shorter, on average, than their South Korean peers. On Monday, Ms. Lee, like many of the South Koreans present, could see the signs of economic suffering in their North Korean relatives’ faces. Those from the South had brought with them bags filled with medicine, nutritional supplements, wristwatches and other gifts for their relatives.
“How come you have aged so much?” Moon Hyun-sook, 91, asked through tears as she touched the faces of her two younger North Korean sisters, one 79 and the other 65.
After more than six decades apart, many relatives could recognize each other only after giving the names of hometowns and parents. Many brought with them old photographs to help retrace memories.
Ahn Jong-soon, a 70-year-old North Korean, kept asking her 100-year-old father Ahn Jong-ho, whether he recognized her. Hard of hearing, Mr. Ahn did not respond verbally, but tears streamed down his face.
“My dear, thank you for just being alive,” said Hwang Woo-seok, 89, hugging Young-sook, 71, his daughter from the North. Mr. Hwang fled to the South during the war to avoid being conscripted into the Communist military and had not seen anyone in his family since.
The two Korean governments have occasionally organized reunions to help ease the pain that the long political divide has inflicted on war-separated families. But the humanitarian program has always been subject to political moods.
Since 1988, more than 75,200 South Koreans who applied to attend reunion have died without seeing their parents, siblings or children again. More than 56,000 South Koreans, the vast majority in their 80s and 90s, are waiting to be selected by lottery for the next round of reunions, which has yet to be scheduled.
This week, reunited family members are allowed to spend 11 hours together over three days, including a three-hour private meeting and lunch, before being separated once again.
South Korea has repeatedly urged the North to hold more reunions. But Pyongyang has been reluctant to expand the program, fearing the impact that meetings with affluent South Koreans might have on its impoverished population.
North Korea is believed to select people for reunions on the basis of loyalty to its regime. It is also thought to prepare them extensively for the meetings, when North Koreans typically insist that they live happy lives as a result of the generosity of their leader, Kim Jong-un, and often blame the United States for preventing reunification on the Korean Peninsula.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has pushed for new efforts to build trust between the two Koreas since his meeting with the North’s leader in April, as well as Mr. Kim’s summit meeting with President Trump in June.
“They are dying without even finding out whether their loved ones are alive,” Mr. Moon said on Monday, as he called for more reunions before it was too late. “This is a situation both the South and North Korean governments must consider extremely shameful.”