Separated Korean families speak of sorrow, hope ahead of family reunions

September 8, 2015
This file photo, taken on Feb. 20, 2014, shows the reunions of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War held at Mount Kumgang in North Korea. (Yonhap)

This file photo, taken on Feb. 20, 2014, shows the reunions of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War held at Mount Kumgang in North Korea. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — Ryoo Si-bong, 76, cannot sleep well these days on anticipation that South and North Korea’s recent landmark deal on easing military tension may make his lifelong wish come true: meeting his older sister living in North Korea.

Until the 1950-53 Korean War broke out, Ryoo, who used to live in China’s northeastern region of Manchuria, never thought he would not be able to see his sister again when she moved to North Korea after marriage.

Following several failed attempts to join the state-arranged family reunions, Ryoo is now voicing hope that he may have a chance to meet his 92-year-old sister as the two Koreas agreed in late August to resume the much-awaited reunions of families separated by the war.

“I want to know whether she is alive or not. My lifelong wish is to meet my sister before I die,” Ryoo said, showing an undelivered letter that he wrote to her two years ago while missing her. “This time, I want to be picked for the upcoming reunion event.”

Ryoo is among more than 66,000 surviving South Korean family members separated by the Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving South and North Korea technically at war.

Inter-Korean relations have long been strained amid North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations, but burgeoning signs of better ties are now growing, backed by the two Koreas’ deal on easing a recent military standoff.

South and North Korea have agreed to make efforts to improve their ties and push for the resumption of the family reunions on the occasion of Korea’s fall harvest holiday, Chuseok, slated for late September. The family reunions were last held in February 2014.

The inter-Korean deal takes on all the more significance as the two Koreas were on the verge of a military clash following the North’s land mine blasts near the inter-Korean border and Seoul’s subsequent resumption of its anti-Pyongyang loudspeaker campaign.

The issue of separated families is one of the most emotional and pressing humanitarian matters as most surviving family members are in their 70s and 80s. There’s not much time left for them.

“No greater tragedy can be found than living with not being able to meet family members and know their whereabouts,” said Shim Goo-seob, 81, who leads a private group of separated families in the South. “We are harboring high hope that a larger number of separated families can meet each other this time.”

The Ministry of Unification said that the number of South Koreans who have applied for the family reunions had reached around 129,700 as of July. About half of the applicants have died.

The issue warrants urgency as about 4,000 separated family members have passed away every year since 2000, according to the Korean Red Cross.

Since the first historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, the two Koreas have held 19 rounds of face-to-face family reunion events so far amid the North’s lukewarm attitude, including the latest one in 2014. Seven rounds of video-based reunions have been held.

Only around 14,500 South Koreans, mostly in their 70s, 80s and 90s, have met with their family members or relatives in the North, according to the ministry.

The two Koreas were to hold Red Cross working-level talks later in the day to decide on details, such as the timing and venue for the reunions. It is highly likely that the event would take place at Mount Kumgang in the North in October.

South Korean separated families expressed hope that the upcoming event could serve as a watershed in leading to more of such families having reunions on a regular basis.

“A one-off event inviting about 100-150 families from each side is far insufficient to meet their expectations,” Shim said. “The number of separated families invited to the reunions should be increased and reunion events should also be made on a regular basis.

He suggested that the two Koreas should at least permit separated families to exchange letters or postcards if an arrangement of a face-to-face meeting is difficult.

Shim, who separated with his mother, younger brother and sister in 1947, said that what’s urgent to families like his is to identify whether their family members and relatives living across the border are alive or not.

“I was lucky that I met my sibling in 1994 in China, but it is very regrettable that I could not be with my mother when she passed away,” he said.

President Park Geun-hye said last month that South Korea will send North Korea a list of about 66,000 separated family members for possible reunions.

As part of such move, the Korean Red Cross kicked off the process last week to contact separated relatives in the South and ask whether they will agree to exchange a list of their names with the North.

The Red Cross also said it plans to make video messages of about 10,000 separated people and conduct a DNA test by the end of the year for possible use after their deaths.

A 10-13 minute video message, which will contain their greetings, expectations for the reunions and their personal stories, will be made to be possibly delivered to their relatives in North Korea.

The DNA test is aimed at identifying the blood relationship and potentially being used in inheritance or other legal disputes.

Hong Kwan-hyun, 89, hopes to talk about his daily life with his cousin who is believed to live in the North’s northwestern province bordering China.

He visited the Korean Red Cross headquarters last week to apply for the family reunions with his wife, who is hoping to meet her brother in the North.

“I felt relieved that North Korea seems to have opened up its mind this time,” he said. “I hope that more frequent family reunions and more exchanges can take place. Then, I believe unification will come someday.”