North Korea

Family reunions offer Koreans the chance of a lifetime

If officials in North stick to their commitment, 92-year-old father will see his 62-year-old son for the first time later this month

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 10:17pm

For Kang Neung-hwan, a 92-year-old retired salesman from Seoul, the chance of seeing his son for the first time depends on the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Kang is the oldest of 100 South Koreans chosen by lottery to see relatives left behind almost 61 years after the war that cemented the division of the two countries. The reunions, last held in 2010, begin on February 20 if the North keeps its commitment.

Their sorrow has been smoldered in their hearts from … 60 years of longing

"I can't think of anything better that could happen in my life," Kang said as he gazed at a basket of gifts - vitamins, socks, underwear, toothpaste and cough medicine - he prepared for his 62-year-old son. He only learned that the wife he left behind six decades ago was pregnant at the time, when he applied last year for a slot in the reunions to see a sister who has since died.

The reunions mark the most significant step in improved ties in the year since the Kim regime threatened a nuclear strike against Seoul. The North has routinely used the visits as a bargaining chip, and Kim is trying to link future reunions to reviving a tourist resort that generated hundreds of millions of dollars for his cash-strapped country.

"Reunions are the North's feelers for any political concessions from the South," said Kim Soo-am, a researcher at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "Family reunions are as much a political issue as they are a humanitarian one between these two countries."

Kim Jong-un has played politics with the planned reunions, demanding that the US and South Korea cancel annual military drills due to start on February 24. He cancelled scheduled reunions in September four days before their start, accusing the South of putting up "obstacles to reconciliation".

The aging survivors can be caught up in the politics between two countries that technically remain in a state of war. Koreans are barred from communicating with relatives on either side, so reunion participants know the visit will probably be their only chance for contact with their loved ones.

"These people can't wait much longer, because most of them are weak and old, and their sorrow has been smoldered in their hearts from the 60 years of longing," South Korean President Park Geun-hye said last month.

Nearly 130,000 South Koreans have applied for reunions since 1988, and about 57,000 of those have died, according to the Unification Ministry. More than half of the rest are over 80.

In September, a 91-year-old South Korean man died less than a week before he was due to see his family. That was the visit that Kim cancelled.

Yu Seon-bi, 80, was chosen last year through two rounds of computer lottery to be reunited with her sister and brother. Yu had better chances in the draw because the bids are weighted in favour of the dwindling number of Koreans with direct family members, rather than cousins or nieces and nephews.

During a visit by a Red Cross official to her home to discuss the trip, Yu broke down in tears upon hearing the name of her hometown in the North. "I'm not sure if I'll even recognise my family," Yu said, rubbing her thumbs on a booklet with the trip's six-day schedule.

Once at the site, the families participate in a group banquet and are given time to be just with their relatives. The departures have produced moving scenes of sobbing octogenarians, reaching up to touch bus windows in a final goodbye.

"They are separated again so quickly, and that can lead to anger, sorrow and depression," said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.

Kang says he'll worry about that after meeting his son. "If I could meet my family for just one day or one hour, I'd be grateful and die in peace," he said.