Sokcho: Dozens of elderly and frail South Koreans set off for the North Monday to meet relatives for the first time since the peninsula and their families were divided by war nearly seven decades ago.
The three-day reunion — the first for three years — will take place at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea, following a rapid diplomatic thaw between the neighbours.
Millions of people were swept apart by the 1950-53 Korean War, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children and husbands and wives.
Hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war and the peninsula split by the impenetrable Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with all direct civilian exchanges — even mundane family news — banned.
The 89 ageing South Koreans, dressed in their best suits in the scorching sun, hobbled one by one to 14 coaches in Sokcho — wheelchairs alongside the vehicles — some excited with others in disbelief, before the convoy set off, escorted by police and medical personnel.
Among the relatives was Lee Keum-seom, now a tiny and frail 92, who was to see her son for the first time since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband as they fled.
At the time the boy was aged just four. He is now 71.
“I never imagined this day would come,” Lee said. “I didn’t even know if he was alive or not.”
– ‘Last time’ –
With time taking its toll such parent-child reunions have become rare.
Since 2000 the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions but most of the more than 130,000 Southerners who have signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died.
More than half the survivors are over 80, with this year’s oldest participant Baik Sung-kyu aged 101.
Baik, who will meet his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, said he had packed clothes, underwear, 30 pairs of shoes, toothbrushes and toothpaste as gifts.
“I also brought 20 stainless spoons,” he added. “I bought everything because it’s my last time.”
Some of those selected for this year’s reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and that they could only meet more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.
But Jang Hae-won, 89, who fled their hometown in Hwanghae province along with his older brother, said he would meet his nephew and niece to offer them a glimpse of their father’s life.
“They don’t know what their father looks like so I will tell them what he looked like and when he died,” Jang said. “But that’s it, because the more we talk, it will only be more sad.”
– Watching eyes –
The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations deteriorated.
The North’s leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to restart them at their first summit in the DMZ in April, and the two Koreas have discussed cooperation in various fields at a series of meetings between officials.
But while Kim and US President Donald Trump held a landmark summit in Singapore in June, Pyongyang has yet to make clear what concessions it is willing to make on its nuclear arsenal, while Washington is looking to maintain sanctions pressure on it.
Families at previous reunions have often found it a bittersweet experience, with some complaining about the short time they were allowed together and others lamenting the ideological gaps between them after decades apart.
Over the next three days, the participants will spend only about 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents, with only three hours in private before they are separated once again on Wednesday, in all likelihood for the final time.
Lim Eung-bok, who is meeting his brother and his family, said: “I have so many things I want to say but there are a lot of restrictions.”