Half a century apart, Koreans meet briefly at border reunions

North Korea, in a sign of a thaw, allowed famliies split by the border to visit each other at a North Korean site in September.

After a glimpse: North Koreans bid farewell to family members from the South after a three-day reunion sanctioned by Pyongyang.

The crags of Mt. Kumgang gleam on the horizon, magnets drawing South Koreans to North Korea and the dream of reunification of a divided nation – or at least of reuniting with relatives whose faces remain etched in the memories of old men and women who last saw them amid the tumult of the Korean War.

"We're lucky to have this occasion," says Lee Kyong-hee, a retired editor, after returning from a fleeting three days at the base of Mt. Kumgang, where she met a sister whom she hadn't seen since 1951. Lee is standing beside her 100-year-old mother, who is resting in a wheelchair, recovering from a meeting they fear may be the last. "My mother has suffered so much," she says. "She has been praying every day."

Ms. Lee, who is in her sixties, mingles bitterness with her memories of the 10 hours that her family was able to see their long-lost sister. "It's a humanitarian program," she says, "but it's inhuman and cruel, because we don't know if we can meet again."

Thousands of families split

The fact that the North Koreans selected her sister as one of 100 to meet relatives from the South only deepens the realization that thousands of other families were not so fortunate, she adds. For several hundred thousand elderly South Koreans, the ultimate dream is to see family members from whom they were separated. For most, the dream remains wrapped up in the politics of confrontation between the two Koreas, even though the leaders of each agreed in June 2000 on regular family visits as integral to inter-Korean reconciliation.

Lee's sister was 16 when she vanished in March 1951 after Chinese forces captured Seoul from the Americans, who had taken the capital from the invading North Koreans but then retreated before the Chinese onslaught. Her father, she says, had already fled to escape capture and possible execution, and her mother was struggling to evacuate the family. When the sister disappeared, the family stayed, hoping in vain to find her.

Years later, they learned her sister had been put to work caring for wounded North Korean soldiers. She became a medical doctor, married a teacher, and had three children.

"We were lucky," says Lee. "There are so many who have family members across the border. They don't know when they can meet [them]."

There's no telling if the latest round of family visits will continue. Like a vast, multi-act drama, the curtain has risen and fallen, with only 16,000 South Koreans actually selected to see relatives from the North before North Korea abruptly halted the program nearly two years ago.

Then, after 18 months of mounting confrontation with the South, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il just as abruptly agreed to another round of visits. The curtain began to lift in August, when former US President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang on an "unofficial visit," ostensibly to bring home two American journalists who had been held for 140 days since North Korean soldiers grabbed them along the Tumen River border with China. Mr. Clinton met with Mr. Kim and briefed President Barack Obama when he got back. The switch may reflect the North's need to open its doors slightly while looking for dialogue with the US – as well as aid and trade to help its dilapidated economy.

'I've been missing you even in my dreams'

Many South Koreans doubt the North will give up its nuclear program, as demanded by the UN Security Council. But no one questioned the emotions as visits resumed in late September, with 97 men and women gathering here to ride North Korean buses to Kumgang. First, 100 South Koreans who had fled from North Korea saw all the relatives the North said it could find – more than 200. Then, for three days, 400-plus South Koreans crossed the border to see 100 North Koreans whom the North said had chosen to leave the South.

The sudden cries and frantic efforts at recognition epitomized the legacy of a war that cost more than 2 million lives and simmers on in a state of truce. The TV report showed a 75-year-old woman weeping, asking her mother, in her 90s, "Are you all right?" then wiping away her mother's tears. The daughter, a teen when she fled south, told her mother, "I've been missing you even in my dreams." Her mother responded, "I'm happy beyond words; it's so good I have lived to see my daughter."

But one-third of the 120,000 South Koreans who applied to see relatives in the North have since died, and the death rate is increasing by several thousand a year. There has been no resumption of mail, and telephone contact is not even up for discussion.

President Obama made clear at the UN General Assembly that the US remains firm on sanctions. And South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak has been just as firm, presenting a "grand bargain" that requires North Korea to give up its nuclear program. North Korea has warned the US it will conduct more nuclear tests and has denounced Lee's plan as "ridiculous."

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