North Korean refugees and their families pay respect to ancestors in N. Korea during a ceremony to celebrate the Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving Day, at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with N. Korea, South Korea, Sept. 13, 2019.
North Korean refugees and their families pay respect to ancestors in N. Korea during a ceremony to celebrate the Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving Day, at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with N. Korea, South Korea, Sept. 13, 2019.

SEOUL - Jin Gyeong-sun was in his early 20s when he fled Pyongyang during the Korean War, heading to South Korea and leaving behind two sisters and a brother in the North.

Seven decades later, Jin still hasn’t met or even spoken with his separated family.

“I cannot even express my sadness in words,” says Jin, now 89 years old and living in Seoul. “Especially around Chuseok,” the Korean autumn harvest holiday celebrated last week, “I miss my family as much as ever.”

For first-generation separated Koreans like Jin, time is quickly running out to see their relatives on the other side of the border.

Making matters worse, official relations between North and South Korea have soured yet again, delaying plans for a resumption of government-sponsored family reunions. 

Too late for some

For many, it’s already too late. Sixty percent of South Koreans who have registered for family reunions since 1988 have already died as of August, according to data from South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Among the approximately 54,000 survivors, 23 percent are 90 or older and 41 percent are in their eighties, Seoul’s numbers show.

At 74, Lee Sang-won is among the younger North Koreans who fled during the war. But for Lee, who came to South Korea during the United Nations-led Hungnam Evacuation in 1950 when he was five years old, memories of family have faded.

“It’s just been too long,” says Lee.

Resumption of reunions - a priority?

Since 1985, a total of 21 rounds of inter-Korean family reunions have reconnected a total of 4,355 individuals and 1,757 families. But there have been fewer reunions in recent years, even as the number of first-generation separated Koreans dwindles.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose parents also left North Korea during the Hungnam Evacuation, has highlighted the urgency of resuming family reunions.

In a statement for last week’s Chuseok holiday, Moon said the resumption of family reunions is “highest priority” for the two Koreas.

"It's wrong that governments in both the South and the North have not given them even a chance for such a long time," Moon said.

The latest round of reunions occurred in August 2018 at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort, with 83 North Koreans and 89 South Koreans participating. One hundred families from each side had been invited, but some dropped out after discovering their family members across the border had already died.

A few months later, Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to formalize the reunions, including restoring a permanent meeting place, allowing for the exchange of letters, and resuming video reunions.

South Korea made preparations to resume video reunions, refurbishing 13 video conferencing rooms nationwide that had been last used in the 2000s. South Korea also purchased video equipment to be sent to North Korea, after the U.N. last year granted a sanctions waiver.

But as with other aspects of the Moon-Kim agreements, the reunion issue has become stalled amid the breakdown in nuclear talks with Pyongyang. North Korea has since blasted Seoul, saying it has no intention of resuming dialogue with the South.

Last week, North Korea said it would accept the recommendation of the U.N. Human Rights  Council to work with South Korea on the issue of helping separated families. But so far there appears to be no visible progress toward that end.

It’s a discouraging pattern for Jin, who says he has applied 21 times for reunion events, but has been rejected each time.

“There is little time for me, and people like me,” he laments. Jin says he would love to one day visit Pyongyang, his old hometown, adding: “Or at least send a letter.”