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North Korea

‘Don’t cry’: Elderly Koreans say tearful goodbyes after first round of reunions

About 200 South Koreans returned home following three days of meetings with North Korean relatives at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 12:09am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 2:27am

As her two North Korean daughters, both in their 70s, wailed outside her bus, 99-year-old Han Shin-ja pounded the windows from inside in despair, moving her lips to say “don’t cry” and “farewell”.

As her bus left for South Korea on Wednesday, Han’s daughters chased the moving vehicle before being stopped by a North Korean official, a predictable but no less heart-wrenching departure that is likely to be the last time they see each other after decades of separation.

Han’s family was among hundreds of elderly Koreans who tearfully said their goodbyes at the end of the first round of rare reunions between relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean war.

About 200 South Koreans returned home after the end of three days of meetings with North Korean relatives at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. Another 337 South Koreans will participate in a second round of reunions from Friday to Sunday.

Emotional reunion for North and South Korean families

The first set of meetings created highly emotional images of relatives weeping, embracing and caressing each other in a rush of emotions. Many of the South Korean participants were war refugees who reunited with siblings or infant children they left behind, many of whom are now into their 70s.

At their final lunch meeting on Wednesday, 91-year-old Lee Ki-soon initially seemed lost for words as he shared a glass of soju, a vodka-like alcohol loved in both Koreas, with his 75-year-old North Korean son.

Lee later told his son, Ri Kang-son, “I am not your fake father. You have a father.” Ri replied: “Be healthy and live long. Then we can meet again,” according to pool reports.

An Jong-sun, a 70-year-old North Korean, carefully fed her 100-year-old South Korean father. In the same large meeting hall, Kim Byung-oh, 88, quietly wept as his 81-year-old North Korean sister tried to calm him.

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Nearby, Ri Chol, a 61-year-old North Korean, was also in tears as he grasped the hands of a 93-year-old South Korean grandmother he was only just getting to know.

“Don’t cry, Chol,” an equally emotional Kwon Seok told her grandson.

Han told her two North Korean daughters to eat a lot of chap-ssal, or sticky rice, for health. She told them she would always pray for their happiness and also for the future of her North Korean great-grandchildren whom she never got to see.

Some relatives exchanged their phone numbers and home addresses, although the Koreas since the end of the war have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border or contacting them without permission.

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Shin Jae-cheon, a 92-year-old South Korean from the town of Gimpo, not far from the border, lamented that his 70-year-old North Korean sister lived less than an hour’s drive away all these years.

“It will take 40 minutes for me to drive there,” Shin told his sister, Sin Kum-sun, who lives in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. “The bus that goes to my home is No. 8. No. 8. The No. 8 bus,” Shin added, expressing a wish for his sister to come visit one day.

After organisers announced that the reunions were officially over, Han and her daughters broke down. They wept, embraced each other and temporarily refused to leave their lunch table. Two North Korean officials politely separated Han from one of her daughters, 71-year-old Kim Kyong-yong, who kept holding onto one of Han’s arms.

After the South Koreans boarded the bus, workers brought steppers so that Han’s daughters could put their hands on the bus window, with Han doing the same on the inside of the glass.

After wiping off tears with a handkerchief, Kim looked up toward his sister, smiled and created a heart with his arms. His sister, Kim Sun-ok, made the same gesture outside the bus.

“Goodbye, oppa (older brother)! Goodbye, oppa!,” Kim Sun-ok cried as the bus rolled out of the resort.

Nearly 20,000 people have taken part in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000. No one has had a second chance to see relatives.

The latest reunions come after a three-year hiatus during which North Korea conducted three nuclear tests and multiple missile launches that demonstrated a potential capability to strike the US mainland.

Analysts say the North still has work to do before those missiles are perfected, however. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shifted toward diplomacy this year, meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in twice and traveling to Singapore for a summit with President Donald Trump.

Seoul has long pushed for more reunions, but analysts say North Korea is reluctant because of fears that increasing their frequency will loosen Pyongyang’s control and relinquish a coveted bargaining chip.