'Postmen' reconnect inter-Korea families
A foundation uses conventional and unusual methods to help relatives separated after the war to send letters and packages across the border
In a cramped and tiny office in the South Korean capital, an 80-year-old man displays letters postmarked "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" in pale red ink.
The imprints with North Korea's official name testify to Kim Kyung-Jae's success in reconnecting some of the tens of thousands of family members separated for decades by the world's last Cold War frontier.
There are no civilian mail or phone connections across the closely guarded inter-Korean border, and many do not even know whether their loved ones are still alive.
Sporadic reunions since 2000 have brought together only a fraction of those seeking news, and have been halted because of political tensions. Kim and colleagues in a nine-member foundation called the Separated Family Union try to bridge the gap, using postal systems of third countries or brokers.
Kim sends about 70 to 80 letters and packages every year to North Koreans at the request of families in the South. It takes roughly 30 days for letters to arrive and another 30 days for a reply to come back.
In the case of letters, Kim mails them from Japan, where he is based. But Tokyo restricts the contents of packages to the North to comply with UN sanctions, so those are sent through China.
Brokers handle their passage through the Chinese postal system and are also used to track down long-lost family members.
For the professional intermediaries who cross the border between China and North Korea, a home town is all that is necessary to discover whether relatives are still alive, and if so, their address.
"Most letters don't contain any secrets or criticism of the [North's] communist regime because they are all subject to screening," said Kim.
But sometimes letters cannot be sent by a public route, in which case Shim Goo-seob, the foundation's co-founder, arranges for a broker to make a more unorthodox delivery.
The document could be tied to a rock and thrown over a narrow section of the Yalu river border with China, or sneaked through in a container truck.
Until a few years ago, all postal traffic was one-way, with South Koreans looking for relatives in the North. But now many North Koreans are seeking family members across the border through the brokers, Kim said.
"The main reason is because they miss them, but partly it's also because the brokers leak information that South Koreans are rich and can send necessities and money," he said.
"Relatives in the North ask us to send anything from rubber to used clothes, but what they want most is medicine for disease, mostly tuberculosis, and food to combat malnutrition."
Basic household items are also in demand. "Things that we have, like scissors and knives? They don't have them," said Kim.
Brokers take about 30 per cent commission if transferring money, and charge roughly 230,000 won (HK$1,560) to deliver a 20-kilogram package through the Chinese post.
Despite the high commission and the difficulties, families in the South keep sending packages because they are so valued in the poverty-stricken North.
"Southerners think they know how bad the situation is there, but it's a whole lot worse than it appears. Things that are trivial to us here can be of great use there."
South Koreans who receive a letter from the North for the first time usually burst into tears out of pity at the plight of their relatives, he said.
Kim himself left the North in 1950, the first year of the Korean War, with all his brothers. He had to leave his sister behind. He was 19 and she was eight.
"That's the last time we saw or talked to each other until 1990, when I miraculously heard her address and we started exchanging letters," said Kim.