Korean families to meet after decades in temporary reunions

North Korea to host meet-and-greet reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Lee Soo-Nam korea reunion family war
Lee Soo-nam will be meeting his brother who he last saw in 1950 [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Seoul, South Korea – North Korea is set to host a temporary reunion of families separated by the Korean War, the first such event in almost three years.

From Monday, a total of 93 people from the South and 88 from the North will be able to meet their family members for three days each. 

For most, it will be the first meeting since the 1950-53 war.

Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. Given the nature of ties between the two countries, it could also be the last time they see each other.

On Sunday, the families started gathering for the registration process, many having had no contact with who they are about to meet since the war.

Lee Geum-shim was separated from her son in 1950 when he was four. She doesn’t remember what he looked like.

“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to recognise him,” Lee told Al Jazeera. “I don’t even remember his face when he was four. I can’t believe I will be meeting him. It feels like a dream.”

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 since died.

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

“The programme was also created in a way that minimises walking for participants, as this is difficult for many of them and some are in wheelchairs,” said a Unification Ministry official.

The families will be able to have private lunch sessions unlike in previous events where a group event was held. 

Since the end of the war, both Koreas have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border or contacting them without permission. 

This week’s reunions come after a three-year hiatus during which North Korea tested three nuclear weapons and multiple missiles that demonstrated the potential of striking the continental US.

At past meetings, elderly relatives – some relying on wheelchairs or walking sticks – have wept, hugged and caressed each other in a rush of emotions. 

There are three people aged 100 or above at the reunion [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]
There are three people aged 100 or above at the reunion [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Hwang Woo-seok, 93, will be meeting his daughter who was three years old when he had to flee.

“I left my hometown in a major retreat. If I knew Korea would be divided for this long, I wouldn’t have left her alone. We all didn’t know it would last this long,” said Hwang.

“I applied for the family reunion more than 30 years ago. Since then, my father died when he was 60, my mother died when she was 77, and my sister died two years ago.

“I’m so sad thinking about all that I’ve lost.”

Behind the raw emotions, the meetings are tightly coordinated events where participants are closely watched by North Korean officials and dozens of South Korean journalists.

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

by Nam Gyu-hyeong, 80

As in previous reunions, South Korea’s Red Cross, which organises the events with its North Korean counterpart, has issued a guidebook telling South Koreans what to do and what not to do.

“Political comments such as criticism of the North’s leadership and the state of its economy could put your [North Korean] family members into a difficult situation,” it says in the green book.

“If a North Korean family member sings a propaganda song or makes a political comment, restrain them appropriately by naturally changing the subject of the conversation.”

While Lee and Hwang are 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 had said 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 Sookyoung Lee

Source: Al Jazeera