Private Efforts Continue for Inter-Korean Family Reunions

Kim Young-ja, one of a few South Koreans who have privately arranged reunions with North Korean family, March 19, 2012.
Kim Young-ja, one of a few South Koreans who have privately arranged reunions with North Korean family, March 19, 2012.
Jason Strother

North Korea’s announcement that it will soon launch a long-range rocket has raised tensions and affected reconciliation efforts on the divided peninsula. That includes new rounds of inter-Korean family reunions with South Korea. Hundreds of thousands of relatives have remained separated since the Korean War began, in the early 1950s.

Kim's story

Kim Young-ja was seven-years-old on the eve of the Korean War, in the spring of 1950.  She lived with her grandparents in a North Korean town, just across the border from South Korea.

Kim recalls the day she last saw her mother.

Kim says her mother wanted to take her back home with her to another town. But her grandparents refused, because Kim’s mother had remarried after her father’s death. Kim says all she remembers is seeing her mother cry.

During the war, Kim and her grandparents were separated from her mother. When the fighting ended in 1953, Kim’s town had become a part of South Korea and her mother was still somewhere in the North.


But Kim never lost hope. In the 1990's she reached out to distant relatives in China. She learned that her mother had passed away, but that she had a half brother who lived in Pyongyang. Because there is no mail or telephone service between the two Koreas, the two half siblings exchanged letters by way of a Chinese middleman who traveled to North Korea.

Some North Koreans are given official permission to travel to China to visit family members. Kim says her brother was too sick to do that. But in the summer of 2011, his wife, Kim’s sister-in-law, obtained a travel permit.

Kim flew to the Chinese border city, Dandong, to meet with this relative she never knew she had. Kim says she hoped she could get answers about her mother’s life since the war.

First meeting

Kim says she had a lot of mixed emotions when she met her sister-in-law. She asked a lot of questions about her mother, but the woman had only met her briefly before she died.
Even though Kim did not get all the answers she hoped for from her sister-in-law, she was still grateful for the opportunity to meet her. She knows it is a chance that most Koreans will never have.

Official inter-Korean family reunions have been on hold since 2010, with no sign of another round on the way. So, left with no other options, a handful of South Koreans, like Kim Young-ja, have decided to arrange them on their own.

Running out of time

According to the South Korean Red Cross, the organization that stages the official reunions, 800,000 Koreans in the south are hoping to reunite with relatives in the North.
But the Red Cross’s Kim Seong-gun says time is running out for most of these people, who are now in their 70s and 80s.

He says, in one year, about 3,600 people die while waiting to be reunited. That comes out to about ten people a day. Kim says he does not know if one country is more to blame for the halt in official reunions. But he says South Korea has repeatedly asked the North to hold more rounds and those requests keep getting rejected.

Red Cross figures indicate that privately arranged family reunions numbered a few hundred per year, a decade ago. But that number has now dwindled, because of the relatives' old age.

Postal connection

Even though most of these people are unable to meet their relatives in person, some are doing the next best thing.

Shin Gu-seo heads an association for divided families that arranges postal exchanges between South and North Korea, through China and Japan.

The 79-year-old says, in the past two decades, he has helped some 400 South Koreans make contact with relatives in the North. And, that includes himself.

Shin says communicating by mail is not the most satisfying way of contacting his brothers and sisters in the North, but considering the risks involved in meeting them in person, this is the best he can get. He says he also sends his family things like warm clothes.

Shin says the letters he sends and receives are most likely screened by the North Korean government. But that does not bother him. He says it is better than no contact at all.
For Kim Young-ja, the woman who met her North Korean sister in law last year, a face-to-face meeting was more than she ever expected.

Kim says, even though she was not able to meet her mother or brother, she still feels lucky. She says she felt a connection with her sister-in-law and that it was a great experience.

But, given the current state of inter-Korean relations, Kim says she doubts that she will have any further contact with her North Korean family again.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs