A family’s embrace that bridged the two Koreas

Her husband disappeared when she was 19 and pregnant, but Lee Soon-kyu and her son had another chance to meet Oh In-she.

A couple of months ago we were reporting on the worst round of tensions between North and South Korea since 2013.

Two South Korean soldiers had been maimed by landmine blasts in the DMZ, South Korea had resumed propaganda broadcasting across the border, the two sides had exchanged artillery fire, and a deadline imposed by Pyongyang, threatening further military action, was ticking down.

What happened instead was an extraordinary, marathon session of talks – very senior representatives from each side thrashing things out over the course of three days, with little sleep.

Analysis: What are Koreans saying about the reunification event?

Part of the deal was a commitment to the first round of family reunions since February 2014.

And so over the last couple of days we’ve been reporting from the other side of the country, as hundreds of elderly, expectant people prepared to cross the boundary that has separated them from their loved ones for more than 60 years.

The contrast between this and the military posturing and high-stakes national talks could not be starker.

It’s a reminder that the division of this peninsula, particularly for its oldest inhabitants, is above all a division of its people.

It has dominated the life of Lee Soon-kyu.

Imagine being a 19-year-old woman in 1950. Not seven months married, already three months pregnant, when your husband, the tall, upright young man you’d spotted in the fields and fallen for, simply disappeared.

Oh In-she was supposed to have been off for a week’s military training. But he never returned.

For decades, assuming he’d died, she looked after his parents, paid annual rites to him and kept a pair of his shoes.

“My whole life is contained in those shoes,” she told us with a wry smile.

And she raised their son, Jang-kyun, as a single parent, never remarrying.

Their son, his wife alongside him, gave a deep bow of respect to the man he’d never met [AP]

He said hearing that his father was alive in the North, and wanted to trace his family, came like a “hammer blow”. At 64 he felt at last he had a father, and he felt a sense of pride.

We watched them go into the immigration building south of the border, and then watched as the convoy of buses snaked up the coast towards the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang.

And hours later we watched in our hotel as the first images of the meetings were broadcast on South Korean TV.

There was Lee, with her compassionate smile, looking her husband full in the face.

North and South Korean families prepare for the reunification event

Unlike his wife, Oh In-she had remarried, and raised a new family in the North. But there seemed to be little interest in recrimination or jealousy. Little time for it, when they have just six meetings of two hours each before they say goodbye again, almost certainly for good.

Their son, his wife alongside him, gave a deep bow of respect to the man he’d never met, but said he recognised from across the room.

“Thank you for being alive,” he told his father. “I have tried to live proudly as your son.”

Later, husband and wife sat at a table, feeding each other crackers, before leaning away in laughter. Like young newlyweds.

Theirs is just one story amid tens of thousands. About 66,000 South Koreans alone remain on the register of applicants. Almost as many have died waiting.

But the applicants’ prospects are at the mercy of the hot and cold flux of the inter-Korean relationship. They’ll just have to hope that the recent warming lasts longer than usual, and that they too might be lucky enough to get their chance some time soon.

Source : Al Jazeera


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