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Inter-Korean Family Reunions Take Emotional Toll


Jang Choon, 82, who was one of the participants in the latest inter-Korean reunion for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War poses at his house in Namyangju, South Korea, March 9, 2014.

Jang Choon, 82, who was one of the participants in the latest inter-Korean reunion for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War poses at his house in Namyangju, South Korea, March 9, 2014.

A number of South Koreans who participated in the latest round of inter-Korean family reunion ceremonies say they are suffering from emotional aftereffects, including depression.

“The first 20 days or so after the reunion were the hardest,” 81-year-old Hoon Jang told the VOA Korean Service. “I have been taking mood stabilizers and that helped a lot.”

Jang was able to reconnect with his brother and sister at the event.

The 19th inter-Korean family reunion was coordinated by the Red Cross and wrapped up February 25.

Hundreds of Koreans from both sides of the border met long-lost relatives for the first time in six decades at North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang resort.

Psychological damage

Almost half of the 439 South Korean participants said they are having difficulty leading their daily lives.

The biggest hurdle cited is the thought of not being able to see their loved ones again. Other reasons include a sense of powerlessness stemming from the fact that they cannot do anything to help their relatives in the North.

Many were also disappointed by the ideological differences. For Boon-il Kim, meeting her sister for the first time since she was 10 years old was a heart-wrenching experience.

“I asked her how she is doing and she answered she is very well thanks to the generous ration [distributed] by the General [Kim Jung Un],” said Kim with a heavy sigh. The 78-year-old has been receiving treatment for high blood pressure since the reunion.

These and other findings were part of a poll conducted by the South Korean Red Cross of every South Korean who met relatives in the North. According to the survey results, three out of 10 respondents reported psychological trauma.

A majority described their concerns about the welfare of separated family members as seriously daunting. Some said they are suffering from insomnia and find it difficult to concentrate at work.

Others reported feeling physically exhausted following the three-day reunion. The oldest South Korean participant at the event was 94 years old.

Despite the heartbreak, however, most said that having the reunions is definitely better than not having them.

“My biggest wish is for other separated family members to get an opportunity to meet their loved ones like I have,” said Un-hyung Park, 92, who saw his daughter. “I feel sorry that I got picked over other people and hope another reunion will be organized soon.”

This month, the South Korean Red Cross plans to provide a psychological support program to affected families, beginning with visits to some 50 people’s homes for counseling.

According to government data, more than 70,000 South Koreans have been on the family reunion waiting list since 1988 - all of them are expected to die within 20 years from old age.

Last month, South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed regularizing face-to-face family reunions to the North. Pyongyang has yet to respond to the offer.
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    Jee Abbey Lee

    Jee Abbey Lee is a veteran broadcast journalist with more than 10 years of experience in TV, radio, and the web. She serves as Voice of America's social media correspondent and is an expert of millennial lifestyle. 

    Lee received her graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to joining VOA, she worked at the Seoul bureau of CNN Travel and served as the chief Bank of Korea correspondent for Arirang TV. 

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