One of the most bittersweet human experiences imaginable played out before TV cameras today as Korean family members divided by a war that came to an uneasy halt in 1953 met for the first time for an all-too-brief, three-day reunion.
Given their ages – most are in their 80s and 90s; the eldest South Korean participant in the event is reportedly a 101-year-old man – it is unlikely that the family members who are meeting today at a South Korean-built tourist resort in North Korea will have the chance to meet again.
Following an agreement at the April summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, family reunions took place this afternoon in the South Korea-established resort in Mount Kumgang in southeastern North Korea.
Eighty-nine South Koreans out of some 57,000 eligible persons with family members on the north side of the border were chosen, by a government-run lottery, for today’s reunion. Four other persons had also been chosen to go but were unable to make the trip at the last minute due to health issues. One hundred eighty-nine North Koreans are expected to join them.
The Korean peninsula was divided into two separate states in 1948, but the border remained relatively porous. During the Korean War, there were massive refugee flows; some 700,000 North Koreans are believed to have fled South; the number of those who went North is not known. Although the war ended in 1953, as the battlefront solidified across Korea, most refugee flows had ceased by the first half of 1951. And since 1953, the wired, mined and patrolled, Demilitarized Zone has been almost impossible to cross for all but a handful of determined defectors.
Heart-wrenching moments filmed for posterity
A pool of South Korean reporters joined the visit to the scenic coastal resort of Mt. Kumgang. The South Korean government asked for access for international journalists, but that request was turned down by North Korea, a Seoul official said.
Pool TV reports showed family meetings taking place at numbered tables in a hotel at Mt. Kumgang. The footage, which aired on South Korean TV this afternoon, depicted heart-breaking scenes.
Some relatives waved away TV cameras. Others spoke in front of the lens, regardless.
A 92-year old South Korean woman, Lee Keum-seon, embraced her 71-year-old North Korean son, who she had last seen when he was four, then gripped his hand as the two were assisted by younger relatives.
Bae Son-hui of South Korea told her North Korean sisters Bae Son-bok and Bae Son-yong how she had escaped to the South when their father faced being recruited into the North Korean Army.
South Korean Han Shin-ja, 99, met her two daughters from the North. They had been separated during the traumatic Hungnam Evacuation, when 100,000 civilians were evacuated by US ships in December 1950, at a time when UN forces were being driven from the North by Chinese forces.
Some persons were recipients of tragic information: A sister-in-law explained to her late brother’s wife how she had been blinded by bombs and the rest of her family killed during the war.
Others met cousins and half-siblings they had never met – or even seen – and were captured speaking furiously in attempts to relay as much information as possible. Some, such as two brothers, were less animated, but almost dazed to see each other, as they exchanged photos and documents, and caught up on seven decades of family news. At some tables, junior relatives stood and offered the traditional bow to elders they were meeting for the first time.
Earlier South Korean footage had shown busloads of elderly people, some with younger relatives, and some in wheelchairs, assisted by Red Cross officials in yellow vests, boarding buses in the northeastern South Korean city of Sokcho for the drive across the DMZ to Mt. Kumgang, just across the border in southeastern North Korea.
Divided families as political weathervanes; secret meetings in China
Today’s government-sponsored reunion is the first such in three years. Divided family reunions have customarily been political footballs, subject to the broader state of inter-Korean relations. As such, the event today is a positive sign of improved ties.
The venue, the Mt Kumgang Tourism resort, was built and operated by an arm of the South Korean conglomerate, Hyundai, which also operated an inter-Korean industrial part at Kaesong, just north of the DMZ, but on the western side of the peninsula. Operations were suspended at Mt. Kumgang in 2008 after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier, apparently after wandering into an off-limits area. The industrial complex was shuttered by Seoul in 2016 amid high inter-Korean tensions.
Half of the 89 chosen South Korean visitors are on today’s visit; they return to the South on Wednesday. The second tranche of visitors heads North on that day, and returns on Sunday. Once they return home, they will have no legal means of contacting the relatives they have just met: There is no transport, telephone, mail, internet service across the DMZ.
Since 2000, some 23,500 Koreans have attended 20 official, governmental reunions.
However, in recent years, a number of South Koreans are known to have hired “brokers” – usually North Korean defectors, or Chinese-Koreans – to contact relatives in the North, and then arrange visits in third countries, usually China.
Some Seoul-based reporters have declined to report these events, on the grounds that to do so would compromise them, and lead to the closure of related channels.
Inter-Korean relations expand as Pyongyang-Washington ties stalled
In remarks to presidential secretaries this morning that were distributed to foreigner reporters, South Korean President Moon Jae-in – whose own family escaped from the North during the Korean War – noted that “time is running out,” as, over the last five years, over 3,600 divided family members in the South have died each year.
“It is a disgrace for both the South and North Korean governments that these applicants died with lasting regrets, not even knowing whether their separated family members were alive or not,” Moon said. “The waiting periods should not be prolonged any longer now. Having more reunions of separated families more frequently is the top priority among humanitarian projects identified by the two Koreas. Not only regular family unions, but also ways to expand contact need to be implemented.”
Moon will soon have a chance to raise the issue: He is expected to meet Kim in Pyongyang in September, for what will be their third summit. It was reported by Singaporean media this weekend that Chinese President Xi Jinping will also visit Kim in Pyongyang on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, on September 9. There is considerable speculation underway in South Korean media over the dates of Moon’s visit, given the importance of the September 9 date for North Korea.
The family reunions come as North and South Korea proceed with a range of confidence-building measures, including family reunions, a joint team at the ongoing Asia Games in Indonesia, cross-border talks on subjects as varied as military tension reduction measures and forestry cooperation, and moves to establish a permanent inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ.
Meanwhile, however, Pyongyang and Washington remain distant over and official ending to the Korean War – a move that Pyongyang is pressing for – while the United States is frustrated at the apparent non-progress in North Korea’s promised denuclearization.