North Korea

South Korean families gather on eve of rare reunion

Less than 100 people from the South will be crossing the border to spend three days in the North, but only about 11 hours with their long-separated relatives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 4:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 4:11pm

Dozens of elderly and frail South Koreans gathered excitedly on Sunday, the eve of their first meeting for nearly seven decades with family members in North Korea.

The three-day reunion – the first for three years – begins on Monday at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, following a rapid diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.

Millions of people were swept apart by the 1950-53 Korean war, which divided brothers and sisters, parents and children and husband and wives and perpetuated the division of the peninsula.

Among them was Lee Keum-seom, now a tiny and frail 92. She was waiting to see her son for the first time since she left him behind in the turmoil of war.

She lost her husband and four-year-old son as their family fled, and boarded a ferry heading for the South with only her infant daughter – who was accompanying her to the reunion.

The son is now 71 and Lee has been told that he will bring his daughter-in-law to the meeting.

“I don’t know what I’m feeling, whether it’s good or bad,” Lee said. “I don’t know if this is real or a dream.”

She raised seven children after remarrying in South Korea but always worried about the son she left in the North. Now there are many questions to ask.

“Where he lived, who he lived with and who raised him – because he was only four,” she said.

Since 2000 the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions but time is running out for many ageing family members.

More than 130,000 Southerners have signed up for a reunion since they began but many have since died. Most of those still waiting are over 80 and the oldest this year is 101.

With a few people dropping out at the last minute for health reasons, 89 elderly South Koreans – accompanied by relatives – gathered in Sokcho city on South Korea’s northeast coast to spend the night before going to the heavily-fortified border that has taken them decades to cross.

Lee Keum-seom is one of the few parents reuniting with a child.

But Lee Kwan-joo, 93, said he would meet his nephew and niece to get a sense of the life that his parents and six siblings had led in the North before they died.

Lee in 1945 went to school in Seoul, away from his family in Pyongyang, and the war made the separation permanent.

“I was delighted to hear about my nephew and niece, even though I don’t even know their faces,” Lee said. “I just want to ask them how my brothers, sisters and parents passed away.”

Over the next three days, the participants will only spend about 11 hours with their relatives in the North.

Families at previous reunions have often found it a bittersweet experience. Some complained about the short time they were allowed to spend together.

Others lamented the ideological gap between them after decades spent apart.