Separated by war, Korean families meet after decades apart

Six-day reunion, hosted in North Korea, is the first time most of 150-plus people meet family from across the border.

    Separated by war, Korean families meet after decades apart
    This is the first family reunion in almost three years [Yonhap via Reuters]

    Separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, dozens of elderly North and South Koreans have met for the first time since their families were broken apart nearly 70 years ago.

    The first such family reunion in almost three years started on Monday when a group of 89 South Koreans crossed the border to meet their family members at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea.

    Crying and talking excitedly, the reunited relatives clasped one another and tried to bridge decades of separation through precious physical contact, pulling out pictures of absent relatives so they could be included in the happy occasion.

    Many of the North Korean women wore traditional dresses, known as hanbok in South Korea and joseon-ot in the North, and all wore the ubiquitous pins commemorating North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung or his son and successor Kim Jong-il, while the Southerners wore their best suits.

    At the meeting, as soon as 99-year-old South Korean Han Shin-ja approached her table, her two daughters - aged 69 and 72 - bowed their heads deeply towards her and burst into tears.

    Han also broke down, rubbing her cheeks against theirs and holding their hands tightly.

    "When I fled during the war..." she began, choking back tears as if she were about to apologise for leaving them behind. She was not able to finish.

    Lee Geum-shim, now a frail 92-year-old, hadn't seen her son since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband as they fled.

    At the time Ri Sang-chol was just four. Lee shouted his name when she saw the now 71-year-old, before hugging him as both were overcome with emotion.

    Her son showed her pictures of his family in the North - including her late husband - telling her: "This is a photo of Father." 

    Since 1988, more than 132,000 people have registered with the Red Cross in South Korea for the reunion programme - over half of them have died [Yonhap via Reuters]

    With time taking its toll, such parent-child reunions have become rare.

    Some of the South Koreans were in wheelchairs or had to be supported by accompanying family members when they boarded the buses with bags of gifts prepared for their long-lost families in the North.

    Since 1988, more than 132,000 people have registered with the Red Cross in South Korea for the reunion programme. Over half of them have died.

    Almost 36,000 of the 57,009 people that registered who are still alive are aged 80 and above. More than 12,000 are over 90.

    Most of the 89 participants chosen from the South are in their 70s or 80s, while the oldest is 101.

    Over the next three days, the 89 families will spend only about 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents.

    They will have only three hours in private before they are separated once again on Wednesday, in all likelihood for the final time.

    While 89 South Koreans were lucky enough to be selected, for thousands of other Koreans, time is running out.

    "I signed up for a reunion 30 years ago but have yet to be picked for one," 80-year-old Nam Gyu-hyeong told Al Jazeera earlier this year.

    "While I would still like to be part of a reunion, I think the Red Cross and the authorities should've done something earlier.

    "For me, there isn't much time left. Five of the nine people I fled North Korea with are dead already."

    With additional reporting by Faras Ghani 

    The 89 families will have only 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents [Yonhap via Reuters]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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