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Divided Korean Families Prepare for Brief, Emotional Reunions

  • Kurt Achin

Divided Korean Families Prepare for Brief, Emotional Reunions

Divided Korean Families Prepare for Brief, Emotional Reunions

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A small number of elderly South Koreans are preparing to cross the border with North Korea for a family meeting more than half a century in the making. The Korean division that pulled their family apart also creates the conditions for a less-than-ideal reunion (Sept. 26-Oct. 1).

Shin Gwang-sun lives with his second wife here in the South Korean capital. He left his first family behind in North Korea more than half a century ago, when he fled the horror of war. He is 92 now but he still remembers the moment when he left his little girl.

"My mother was holding her on her back and my daughter said 'bye-bye, bye-bye daddy.' She said it just like that ... I am very lucky to see her again. But it still hurts so much."

The guns of the Korean War fell silent in 1953, but the peninsula remains divided. But in just a few days, Shin will see his little girl again, now a grown woman.

"When I meet my daughter, the first thing I am going to ask her is, how are your mother and your grandmother? Where are they? Where are they buried? And you, my daughter, how has your life been?" he said.

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These reunions are organized by the Red Cross, like 16 others since 2000. More than an 100,000 Koreans are on waiting lists to take part.

North and South select just 100 people from each side for each gathering, based mainly on their age and family history.

They are then transported to the North's Kumgang Mountain.

The separated relatives attend a series of events where they can talk, eat, and drink in a banquet hall. What they cannot do is enjoy any privacy from their North Korean hosts, nor can they spend the night together.

Kim Seong-keun directs the Inter-Korean Cooperation Division of the Red Cross in Seoul. He says many families wind up disappointed.

"People believe they will spend three full days and two full nights with their family, eating and sleeping together. But we still haven't concluded an agreement with North Korea about that. Over the course of six meetings during a family reunion, they end up spending only 11 hours together. That's not much!" said Kim Seong-keun.

South Korea could hold reunions every weekend. It is North Korea that keeps them few and far apart. The totalitarian government restricts its citizens from contact with or information about the South.

This man met his daughter in a past reunion. He wishes to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions for his daughter, who still lives in North Korea. He says his daughter was anxious and silent during most of their meeting, and had clearly lived a life of deprivation.

"Before going to meet her, I would have assumed the only way she could have gotten so thin would be due to some kind of illness. But when I saw her, I realized the truth, she wasn't getting enough to eat. So pitiful." he said.

Advocates of separated families criticize the way North Korea handles the reunions. Lee Sang-chul heads one advocacy group in Seoul. He says South Korea has given the North too much aid, for too few meetings.

"The past two South Korean presidents gave about $1.6 billion worth of rice and fertilizer to North Korea," he said. "In return, North Korea permitted 1,600 families to be reunited. Do the math. That is a cost of $1 million per reunion. Ridiculous!"

Lee says tens of thousands of separated families are running out of time.

"These people are so old that they are likely to pass away soon. I imagine this whole separated family problem will disappear in about 4 or 5 years. So we need to hurry. This kind of 100 person at a time gatherings are nothing more than a token event, and our organization opposes them," he said.

The Red Cross has produced what it calls video letters, to pass on to separated family members in the North one day, in case their South Korean relatives die before a reunion can take place.

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