NEARLY 90 South Korean families crossed the heavily fortified border into North Korea yesterday to be reunited with elderly relatives they had not seen since being separated in the chaos of war nearly 70 years earlier.
Brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces cried and embraced each other in the first family reunions to take place in three years.
Some relatives couldn’t even recognise each other, but that wasn’t a problem for 88-year-old Kim Byung-oh and his 81-year-old North Korean sister Kim Soon-ok who were separated while still at school.
“I haven’t slept a wink since being selected for this family reunion,” Byung-oh said as he met his sister.
“Blood ties don’t disappear, even after all this time,” Soon-ok replied. Soon-ok showed her brother an old photograph of herself at medical school and said she had worked as a doctor. “I lead a respected life in Pyongyang,” she said.
Byung-oh said he had worked as a high school headmaster until retiring 10 years before, adding that it was an honour to see his sister had done so well.
“Oh brother, it will be great when reunification happens,” she said. “Let reunification happen and let’s live together for even just one minute before we die,” she said tearfully.
After 11 hours together over the next three days, the pair will part, almost certainly never to see each other again, and - unless something changes - they won’t even be able to exchange letters.
The reunion programme began in 1985, stalled, then got under way properly at the turn of the millennium. In all, more than 17000 South Koreans families have taken part in 20 reunions since then, with a few thousand more taking part in a brief programme of video link-ups.
But North Korea’s suspicion of any outside influence means that many tens of thousands more have been denied the chance to meet: more than 130000 South Koreans have registered as members of divided families since the programme began, but more than half of them died before getting to meet their relatives again. Of those still on the waiting list, more than 12000 are over 90 years old.
For many participants these reunions represent the first news they have had of their relatives in nearly seven decades.
“It is a shame for both governments in the South and the North that many of the families have passed away without knowing whether or not their lost relatives were alive,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a meeting with presidential secretaries yesterday.
Moon is himself a member of a divided family: His parents fled on a ship from the North Korean port of Hungnam in December 1950, and he accompanied his mother to meet her younger sister during an earlier family reunion in 2004.
“Expanding and accelerating family reunions is a top priority among humanitarian projects to be carried out by the two Koreas,” he said.
The South Korean families, 89 applicants usually with two or three relatives accompanying them, were bused across the border yesterday morning to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang.
Many were war refugees who fled south during the war, leaving relatives behind. Some crossed in wheelchairs pushed by relatives and Red Cross volunteers: The oldest is a 101-year-old man.
During the three years since the reunions were last held, the North tested three nuclear weapons and many missiles, some of which could potentially reach the United States. But this year has seen a pause in the nuclear and missile programme and an attempt, led by President Donald Trump and South Korea’s Moon to find a diplomatic path out of the crisis.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to restart the reunions at a summit with Moon in April. Trump then met Kim in Singapore in June, although there has since been little indication that the North Koreans are genuinely willing to abandon their nuclear programme.
A second round of reunions involving a further 83 families will take place from Friday to Sunday. While South Korea chooses participants through a computerised lottery, experts say North Koreans select candidates based on their perceived loyalty to the regime.