Half a century of political and ideological division on the Korean Peninsula is being held in abeyance this week, as separated family members meet relatives living across the demilitarized zone that divides the North and South.
The first North Korean passenger plane to land in South Korea ferried 100 North Koreans to Seoul on Tuesday morning. About an hour later, the same plane flew an equal number of South Koreans to Pyongyang. The reunions end tomorrow.
The families, separated by the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, had been deprived of contact for the past 50 years. No telephone calls, exchange of mail, or any type of communication is allowed between the two Koreas.
The initial meetings at COEX convention center in downtown Seoul and Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel overflowed with emotion locked up over the decades.
Children and parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives burst into a spontaneous flow of weeping, with occasional scenes of hysteria and fainting.
The family reunions had been carefully orchestrated to stay well clear of sensitive political issues. The 200 who were selected to travel across the border underwent extensive training sessions. But the family members were completely captivated in the intensity of the moment.
Kim Dong Man expressed the frustration and liberation upon meeting his older North Korean brother Kim Dong Jin. "There are too many questions to ask, as most of our lives we have lived apart," the younger Kim says. "But I am satisfied that I saw him once. I have no other wish now."
The extreme length of the separation at times proved too much: A few struggled to recognize their long-lost relations or discovered some they didn't know existed. Baik Gi Taik, a North Korean man who was visiting his three sisters in Seoul, stumbled upon a daughter he knew nothing about.
"After you joined the North Korean Army your daughter was born," his eldest sister, Paik Moon Ok, says. "This is she."
After the reunions, the family members probably will never see each other again. And even if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il follows through with his reported interest in more meetings this year, the possibility of sweeping or permanent reunions is slim.
Still, the reunions symbolize tangible progress on the peninsula. Throughout the division that was sealed at the close of the Korean War in 1953, the North and South have launched occasional attempts to make amends. Every positive gesture was countered by hostile acts. However, tensions stretching between the North and South have been mollified since the inter-Korean summit in mid-June, where Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung signed an unprecedented accord of reconciliation.
This week's family reunions, which began on Independence Day Aug. 15, when both Koreas celebrate liberation from Japanese rule, were part of the accord and represent a shift toward peaceful coexistence.
"Without these family exchanges, it is inconceivable that North Korea and South Korea could move into economic exchanges and military reductions," says Moon Chung In, director of the Institute for Unification Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The only other reunions took place in 1985. This time around, Seoul and Pyongyang are being pressured to build on the momentum and soon hold additional meetings as the separated family members are reaching advanced age.
About 3.5 million Koreans living in the North crossed into the South between 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950. An additional 1 million people came to the South during the Korean War. Travel the other way was less common, with the North's Army either kidnapping or recruiting 85,000 Koreans living in the South.
Each visiting North Korean in Seoul was allowed a maximum of five visiting family members, yet millions more watched the greetings in nationwide television coverage.
The 100 South Koreans were chosen by lottery, while the Kim Jong Il regime carefully handpicked the North's side in an apparent bid to minimize the risk of defections and maximize the image of a robust North Korea. The 100 North Koreans are highly successful artists, scientists, academics or Worker's Party stalwarts. Ninety-three are men with visibly dyed black hair. Only two are older than 80 years of age, as opposed to 23 from the South.
South Korean resident Lee Dok Yong, whose son was only eight months old when he last saw him, was expecting a normal reunion. The son, Lee Kwan Yul, was quick to display 16 Worker Party medals pinned to his suit. He earned the medals for "contribution to the construction of the socialist country and meritorious service." Says the father: "You must have worked hard for these medals."
The divided Korea being the last cold war frontier, the reunions are living examples of how the Korean War continues to wreak havoc in family relations.
Many mysteries have been left unsolved. Some South Koreans are still unclear as to how their relatives ended up in the North.
In 1950, Lee Chun Ja watched her husband, Ri Bok Yun, walk out the front door to buy a bike. He never returned. "Fifty years to get a bicycle," she says, "that's a long time to wait."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society