Cascades of tears. Lingering hugs. Family photos. And questions that have burned unanswered for decades.
For the first time in three years, North and South Korea are holding family reunions, allowing a small number of South Koreans to travel across the fortified border to the North to reunite with loved ones they haven’t seen since the 1950s.
Such reunions have been held intermittently since the ’80s and have resumed as relations between the North and South are thawing.
For the families involved, it’s an extraordinary moment. In general, there is no contact permitted between North Koreans and South Koreans, and many members of separated families do not even know if their relatives across the border are still alive.
The Associated Press reported from Seoul:
“The 92-year-old South Korean woman wept and stroked the wrinkled cheeks of her 71-year-old North Korean son on Monday, their first meeting since they were driven apart during the turmoil of the 1950-53 Korean War.
” ‘How many children do you have? Do you have a son?’ Lee Keum-seom asked her son Ri Sang Chol during their long-awaited encounter at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. …
“Hugging the woman he’d last seen when he was 4, Ri showed his mother a photo of her late husband, who had stayed behind in North Korea with him after being separated from his wife while fleeing south. ‘Mother, this is how my father looked,’ Ri said.
“Before leaving for North Korea, Lee said she wanted to ask her son ‘how he grew up without his mom and how his father raised him.’
Many of the reunions involve elderly family members reuniting with siblings; few parents are still living to be reunited with their children.
Reuters reports that some of the reunified relatives struggle to recognize their family members:
” ‘How are you so old?’ Kim Dal-in, 92, asked his sister, Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence.
” ‘I’ve lived this long to meet you,’ replied the 85-year-old, wiping away tears as she clasped a photograph of her brother in his youth.”
Before the reunions were held, NPR’s Michael Sullivan and Se Eun Gong spoke to several South Koreans who were preparing for the visit.
Ahn Seung-Choon was 14 when her 17-year-old brother was taken by North Korean soldiers. She later fled south with her mother, who did not survive the trip. Sullivan and Gong report:
“She never stopped wondering what had happened to her brother. Some 30 years ago, she went to her county office in Jecheon, southeast of the capital Seoul, and put her name on a list of other Koreans wanting a chance for rare, short-term family reunions granted intermittently since 1985.
“Of 132,000 South Koreans who registered with the government since 1988, some 57,000 are still alive, hoping to meet their long-lost loved ones before it’s too late. No more than 100 South Koreans are given the opportunity to take part in each reunion. …
“As the decades passed, Ahn pretty much forgot about her own request — until she got a phone call earlier this month. She’d been chosen in the lottery to visit her brother in the North.
” She was thrilled. But two days later, Ahn got another call. Her brother, it turned out, had already died. But he had left a family, and his wife and son were willing to meet.”
Ahn traveled north to meet her nephew, saying, “I should go see him before I die.”
This week, 93 families were supposed to be reunited, but four families had to cancel because of poor health, Reuters reports, citing the Red Cross. All told, some 330 South Koreans are meeting 185 North Koreans, the wire service says.
The families will be meeting for 11 hours, spread out over three days.
A second round of reunions will be held Thursday, according to Reuters, with 88 more families involved.
On Morning Edition on Friday, Sullivan noted that 75,000 South Koreans have died while waiting for the chance to see their family members.
“The lucky ones are the ones who have been reunited,” he said. “But the rest who are still waiting, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
The AP reports that North Korea is “reluctant to accept calls for more reunions.”
“Analysts say it sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip and believes more reunions would give its people a better awareness of the outside world,” the news service writes. “While South Korea uses a computerized lottery to pick participants for the reunions, North Korea is believed to choose based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.”