Family Ties Reunite Official Enemies
Brokering Secret Reunions
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — "Oh, I've waited so long! You don't know how long I've waited!" bawls the middle-aged daughter from North Korea in the video.
"Oh my baby, my baby!" sobs her South Korean mother, hugging as if she'll never let go again. Fifty years ago, she left her daughter with relatives to flee south amid civil war.
In a drama that was all too real, this mother and daughter had a brief reunion last month in a nondescript room in northeastern China. But meetings like this are becoming more frequent as elderly Koreans search for kin in greater numbers and the governments involved ease restrictions or turn a blind eye.
The videotaped scene is watched by prospective customers of Kim Hak Joon, a Seoul-based broker of family reunions. Using an underground network, he smuggles out North Koreans for a three-day, heart-wrenching visit. (Totalitarian North Korea allows almost no roads, phones, or letters to connect to South Korea.)
In a rooftop office above the pool hall he also runs, Mr. Kim breezily explains the process to an elderly man, a potential customer. "It's kind of like 007," he says.
But Mr. Kim is no spy. He says he's a patriot, who has reunited 30 families since 1995. That's almost half the number reunited by Korean diplomats over the decades.
The process begins with a letter smuggled into North Korea. Where is my daughter? Is she alive? Will she come out? If the last answer is yes, Kim's helpers bribe North Korean and Chinese police to ensure safe transit. A reunion can cost as much as $8,000.
Meanwhile, South Korean family members go as tourists to China, which began admitting them after relations were normalized in 1992. Reunions take place far from the border area, which is patrolled by Chinese police charged with capturing North Korean refugees. Kim gives the Northerners new clothes and hair styles. "They look like vagabonds" when they come out and are easily identifiable, he says.
At a typical reunion, even immediate family members are suspicious of coaching or electronic bugs placed by each other's spy agencies. But memories soon return, and they begin talking about people they knew and places they lived. Later they might cook and sing together. And cry a lot.
During the customary shopping trip, the North Koreans are agog at the modern, bustling Chinese cities and at all the things South Korean relatives can buy for them. Mr. Kim says they never complain about North Korea's totalitarian government, always maintaining - as their government does - that it is US and Japanese policies that hurt them.
South Korean relatives don't bring up ideology. At the end of the visit, they bundle up the purchases and send off the North Koreans with US cash. The clothes, medicine, soap, toothpaste, and other items will be shared with other North Koreans. The US dollars are spent very slowly. Once it was dangerous for North Koreans to admit American connections, but tough times have made even that OK. They still don't admit to having South Korean relatives, however.
The families thank Kim profusely. The network is a risky operation. Once a South Korean father alarmed his son with letters requesting a reunion. The son, dutiful to his country, reported them to North Korean secret police. A Kim helper was arrested.
But the North Korean government isn't cracking down on these reunions. With so many families kept apart, even the leadership has some sympathy, Kim says.
These days, bold North Koreans even seek out Kim to find relatives in South Korea. On his table is a letter from one of them, with names, birth dates, and hometowns written in longhand.
The South Korean government wants to make reunions easier too. It will establish an information center for families Sept. 20. "We think it's urgent," says an official in Seoul. "Those old family members are passing away."