Bittersweet tears as divided Koreans meet after 60 years

Agence France-Presse

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"So old," were the first words said by a 93-year-old man after meeting his now 64-year-old son

LONG-AWAITED. North and South Korean family members divided by the Korean War walk up stairs together during a reunion for families at a venue in the North Korean resort area of Mount Kumgang on February 20, 2014. Photo by Yonhap/AFP

SOKCHO, South Korea – Several hundred elderly South and North Korean relatives clung to each-other, rocking and weeping, and trading photos and faded memories as they met after 60 years Thursday, February 20, at a reunion for families divided by the Korean War.

The emotional gathering at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort was the result of tortuous, high-level negotiations between Pyongyang and Seoul, which had nearly broken down over the North’s objections to overlapping South Korea-US military drills.

Television footage showed snow falling hard as 82 South Koreans – some so frail they had to be stretchered indoors – arrived at the resort in a convoy of buses to meet 180 North Korean relatives they have not seen for decades.

Inside the main hall, where numbered tables had been laid out, there were moving scenes as divided brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, step-siblings and in-laws sought each other out and then collapsed into each others’ arms.

One of the oldest South Koreans, a 93-year-old man who was separated from his pregnant wife during the 1950-53 conflict, met the now 64-year-old son he had never seen.

“So old,” were his first words as they came face-to-face – the resemblance strikingly clear to people watching.

“Let me hug you,” the father said and then, sobbing, they both embraced.

Nearly all the participants had brought photographs, either tattered, black and white images of the family before it was split up, or brand new colour snaps of their current families.

These were then passed around, stroked and cried over.

‘Big sister. It’s me!’

Some of the reunions proved particularly traumatic, with one North Korean woman, Lee Jung-Sil desperately searching for recognition from her South Korean older sister, Lee Young-Sil, 87, an Alzheimers sufferer.

“Big sister. It’s me! Why can’t you hear me?” Jung-Sil entreated, tears streaming down her face.

The North Korean women wore traditional hanbok dresses, while the men were mostly dressed in dark suits. All seemed to be sporting badges of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – obligatory accessories in North Korea.

A grand dinner was planned for the evening and on Friday the reunited relatives were to be given the chance for more private gatherings in their guest rooms.

The South Koreans, with an average age of 84, had left the eastern port city of Sokcho at 8:30am on board 10 buses.

The departure was delayed as two woman needed medical attention, and ended up being taken in ambulances for the entire journey.

More than a dozen were in wheelchairs and needed help getting on and off the buses, which they shared with 58 family members, brought along for physical as well as emotional support.

Bags of gifts

All carried bags stuffed with gifts, ranging from basic medicines to framed family photos and packets of instant noodles.

“The gifts I’m bringing to my sister should be good. Something you can’t see much in North Korea so I hope she will be happy,” said Kim Se-Rin, 85.

“I’ve also included some US dollars for her and my younger brother,” Kim said.

The reunion came just days after the publication of major UN report that amounted to a searing indictment of Pyongyang’s rights record, detailing murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and forced abortions.

Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the waiting list has always been far larger than the numbers that could be accommodated.

For many people, time simply ran out. Last year alone 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died.

For all the joy the meetings bring, it is tempered by the realisation that – given the participants’ advanced ages – it also marks a final farewell.

“This will be our first and last reunion,” Kim Dong-Bin, 81, said of the elder sister he left decades ago in Pyongyang.

All the South Koreans had spent Wednesday night in a Sokcho hotel, where they received a lecture by South Korean officials advising them to avoid political issues.

Before boarding the buses to cross the heavily-militarised border, they spoke of their hopes and anxieties ahead of the meetings they had dreamed of for so long.

“I think when I see her face, I won’t believe it’s real,” Kim said of his sister.

“I wonder if I will be able to recognise her immediately? It’s been so long,” he added.

It was the first meeting of divided families since the reunion programme was suspended following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island in 2010. –

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