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Friday 24 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# The Koreas
Beautiful and heartbreaking: Families reunited for brief moments after 60 years
North and South Korea will hold another 3-day session of reunions, starting today.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families Kim Do-hoon Kim Do-hoon

A SILVER-HAIRED South Korean woman adjusted her 83-year-old North Korean husband’s necktie. He held her hands and stroked her shoulder.

Before this week, they hadn’t seen each other since war tore them apart 65 years ago, and there is no reason to believe they will ever see each other again.

“Let’s meet again in the afterlife,” Oh In Se told his 85-year-old wife, Lee Soon-kyu, during their final meeting at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. “Be healthy,” his wife replied. “Live long.”

Their bittersweet parting was among many at the close of the first round of three-day reunions of hundreds of elderly Koreans on opposite sides of the world’s most militarised border for more than six decades.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families Kim Do-hoon Kim Do-hoon

About 390 South Koreans, many in wheelchairs, traveled to the resort to reunite with their relatives under humanitarian reunion programs that the rival Koreas occasionally hold. Another group of 250 South Koreans will visit from today until Monday.

Lee and Oh and the others are the lucky ones. Many have died before getting the chance. More than 66,000 South Koreans are still on a waiting list.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families AP AP

Oh was 17 and Lee was 19 when they married in late 1949. After living together for less than seven months, they were separated during the turmoil of the Korean War, which broke out in June 1950. Lee was pregnant with their son, who is now 65 and accompanied her this week.

She raised their son on her own, making money from needlework and farming, and never remarried. She lives in the same house that she lived in as a newlywed with Oh. Until she recently learned that Oh was alive and looking for her, she assumed he had died and held an annual memorial service for him.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families AP AP

Some South Korean media reported that Oh had remarried, but during their reunion he told Lee that he has never stopped thinking of her.

She thanked him for being alive. Their son, Jang-kyun, knelt on the floor and made a deep traditional bow. The father and son later laid their hands on the table and marveled at the resemblance.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families AP AP

The next day, when their son jokingly asked his father not to tease his mother, Oh said: “I’m doing this because I love her.”

When Lee asked, “Do you know how big love is?” Oh replied, “Yes, I know. It’s the same thing as when a young man and woman meet and live together until they die.”

On Thursday they were separated again, along with dozens of other Koreans who wept and exchanged final hugs. All knew that no Korean has gotten a second meeting.

“Please raise our son well and enlarge your mind,” Oh told his South Korean wife. He burst into tears while holding his wife’s hand. He wore a gold wrist watch that his wife had given him as a present this week.

The husband left first by boarding a bus with other North Korean participants. He stretched his arm out the bus window to grasp the hands of Lee, who smiled. Lee later touched the deeply wrinkled face of her husband.

Lee Sooon-kyu, Oh In Se

In their own words

Here, in his own words, is what South Korean Lee In-gyeong, 62, chairman of the Korean Boxing Federation, has to say about what is likely to be his last meeting with his uncle, North Korean Ri Hung Jong, 88. 

Lee In-gyeong Ahn Young-joon Ahn Young-joon

“Before he died of stomach cancer, my father used to tell me about his younger brother, who had a great singing voice, was splendid with the guitar and won a few singing contests. He had dreamed of becoming a pop singer. Then one evening during the war, in 1950 … my uncle went out for a walk after dinner and never came back.

The family desperately searched for him for months but didn’t hear a thing. We presumed he was dead.

“So we were shocked when we learned that my uncle was alive in North Korea and looking for us. His sister, who is now 80, fainted. His daughter, now 68, seemed dazed and unable to think clearly.

“We soon were busy buying and packing clothes, medicine and other gifts for my uncle, but it really didn’t sink in until our bus crossed the border and we began seeing North Korean soldiers. We wondered whether he was healthy. We wondered whether he remarried and had kids. We didn’t know what to expect.

“When he appeared at the door of the resort hall, he was in a wheelchair and holding a cane. I instantly cried. I had never seen him before, but he looked exactly like my father. His frame, the shape of his head, the resemblance was unmistakable. We embraced and cried.

“We spent most of the time sharing family stories: who was still alive, who died and what happened to them. My uncle said he remarried six years after arriving in North Korea, after giving up hope that he would ever return to his South Korean hometown, and had several children.

South Korea Divided Families The Singer Ahn Young-joon Gifts from North Korean Ri Hung Jong received by his nephew South Korean Lee In-gyeong Ahn Young-joon

“He was sharp for a man his age, but said he was having mobility problems after falling out of a tree a few years ago. He didn’t seem to like the food prepared by the South Korean side during one of the receptions.

He had never seen a tangerine before and asked me whether he was supposed to eat the skin.

“Our conversations improved when we moved to a hotel room, away from the reporters and cameras. My uncle told us how he had disappeared. Two North Korean soldiers held him at gunpoint as they tried to retreat from the Allied forces. They didn’t know the way back north and needed my uncle to guide them. My uncle was eventually put into a North Korean army truck and was never able to return home.

“On the last day, my uncle’s sister asked whether he remembered the songs he sang at the contests he had won. He said he did, and began to sing Baekma River and The Serenade of Sadness.

The man could still sing. He hit every note. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking.

“It was painful to see him leave on the bus. We cried and tried to hold hands as long as we could. I kneeled down and gave him a traditional bow, and hugged him hard. … The reunions were a very happy experience for me, but it will be very painful if I never get to see him again.”

Siblings reunited

Other families have a similar sense of the time being so short. AFP spoke with Kim Kum-Sum after she saw her brother for the first time since 1961.

North Korea Koreas Divided Families Kim Do-hoon Kim Do-hoon

“Of course it was wonderful just to see my elder brother again,” said Kim, 78.

“But it was so short; unbearably short really. And now I just feel enormous sorrow at the idea that I’ll probably never see him again,” she said after returning home to Seoul.

The ‘three-day’ tag attached to the reunion is misleading. In reality, that boils down to six, two-hour sessions – only one of which allows the separated relatives to sit down face-to-face in private.

“It’s absurd,” said Kim’s daughter Nam Jeong-Bun, who accompanied her to the reunion held in a mountain resort in North Korea.

“The families need much longer to even begin a meaningful conversation, and they should be allowed to share a room at night. The time limits make the final farewell very, very difficult. You barely have time to meet and then it’s all over.”

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and was initially an annual event. But strained cross-border relations meant that this week’s gathering was only the second in five years.

Before this week’s meetings, about 22,550 Koreans have reunited since 2000: 18,000 in person and the others by video.

Koreans on both sides of the border are barred from exchanging letters, phone calls and emails.

With reporting by AFP

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