Hope and apprehension before rare Korean family reunions

Elderly South Koreans chosen by lottery will be meeting long-lost relatives in North Korea, the first such meetings since 2010.

Lee Ji-eun/Yonhap/AP
Elderly people arrive for a hotel to take part in the reunions with their family members in North Korea, in Sokcho, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.

The last time Hwang Duk-yong saw his two younger sisters, he was 17 and Korea was at war. He crossed the border into South Korea, leaving them both behind in the Communist-ruled North. He hasn't seen them since.

“The Chinese were attacking. I walked to the South and joined the South Korean army,” recalls Mr. Hwang.  

On Thursday he will board a bus bound for North Korea, cross the demilitarized zone between North and South, and reunite with his estranged sisters. He’s one of 82 elderly South Koreans chosen for a rare and fleeting chance to join relatives whom they haven’t seen since the Korean War that ended in 1953. It’s a journey filled with sadness and happiness – a last chance to reconnect, however briefly, with those whom they left behind in the desperate rush to survive.

Hwang, now aged 82, struggles to put his emotions into words. “It’s been such a long time. I don’t know what I’ll say.”

The reunions will be the first held since October 2010 and the 19th since a landmark summit in 2000 between North and South. Those making the journey were selected by lottery from among thousands of applicants; their meetings will last four days and be closely monitored by both sides. After the meetings, held at a resort at the base of Mount Kumgang, the separated relatives will go home in the knowledge that they will probably never see each other again.

Hwang, a former heavy equipment operator on an American military base, says he’s overjoyed to see his sisters again.

Others don’t share quite the same exhilaration. “I am getting old,” says Han Chang-ho, also aged 82. “I don’t even know for sure if my sister can meet me. I don’t feel excited at all. Everybody’s dying.”

Perhaps the greatest disappointment about the reunions is that so far only about 18,000 South Koreans have been able to see their relatives in person. When Kim Dae-jung, then South Korean president, met North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in June 2000, they agreed “to settle humanitarian issues,” notably the division of families – a dream unfulfilled as the two Koreas confront one another in crises and occasional clashes.

'Crimes against humanity'

This week’s reunions come days after the release of a highly critical UN Human Rights Council report on North Korea. Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, says the North’s agreement on family visits was timed to counter the impact of the commission’s claim that its human rights abuses “constitute crimes against humanity.”

“It seems this report was one reason North Korea decided to have good relations with South Korea,” says Mr. Han, who also served as ambassador to the US. “They tend to go in cycles.”

The last time that Korean families met across the border was in October 2010. A month later, North Korean gunners shelled a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, killing four South Koreans. A visit scheduled last September was cancelled by North Korea amid the ongoing purge of Jang Song-thaek, the regime’s second highest leader, who was executed in December.  

No one is certain exactly how many families were divided by the war; estimates range as high as ten million. Nearly 130,000 South Koreans have applied for family visits held since 2000, but their numbers are rapidly declining: South Korea’s unification ministry says that 57,700 have died, including 3,841 who passed away last year.

Lottery, kin tracing

South Korea’s Red Cross runs the lottery that selects participants, then coordinates with the North Korean Red Cross to trace separated kin. But the result can be jarring for those hoping to meet their long-lost relatives.

“I got a notice from the Red Cross my mother passed away,” says Park Choon-jae, who crossed into South Korea at age eight. A brother had also died. So Mr. Park is due to meet two cousins for the first time, which leaves him feeling uneasy.

“When the meeting was arranged, I was full of hope,” he says. “With the date coming up, I feel a little confused, a little saddened, all mixed feelings.”

Kim Dong-bin last saw his elder sister in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on Dec. 4, 1950. At the time, Chinese forces were attacking the US and South Korean troops who had overrun much of North Korea after repelling an initial North Korean invasion. “I heard a rumor that Pyongyang might be bombed,” he says. “Everyone was going toward South Korea. I couldn’t find my family in the wave of people. I walked along the railroad to Seoul.”

Kim joined the South Korean army, but was stationed in Pusan and never returned to the North. Now he’s finally making the journey back to meet his sister who may bring some distant relatives. “She has been living by herself. I had three younger brothers, but I heard they all died,” he says.

He applied to travel to the North for a family reunion even before the 2000 North-South summit. “Ever since, I’ve waited and waited, registered and re-registered,” he says. “It’s like I won the lottery, only it’s better.”

With reporting by Chang Sung-hee

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