(Yonhap Feature) Taking family reunions into their own hands
By Jason Strother
SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- Kim Young-ja smiles as she gently flips through a stack of mostly black and white photographs. With a quiet patience, the 67-year-old points to each of the faces.
"This is my father and mother," she says. "And here is a picture of my brother. Isn't he handsome?"
They are all family, but they might as well be strangers. All of the pictures are of North Korean relatives Kim never had the chance to know.
Kim's story is not unique amongst the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who were separated from loved ones during the Korean War (1950-53). The unusual part of her story is how she went outside the lines to reunite with these relatives six decades later.
Kim is one of only a handful South Koreans who have tracked down her family in the North without the help of the government or the Red Cross, which organizes official family reunions.
Kim Young-ja looks through pictures of her family in North Korea (Courtesy of Jason Strother)
When the war erupted in June 1950, Kim and her grandparents fled their home in North Korea. Her mother was left behind.
But Kim never lost hope. With the help of relatives in China and business contacts who travel to Pyongyang, Kim learned of the fate of her family. Her mother had already passed away, but she discovered she has a half brother. This past summer, Kim met with this long lost brother's wife who received a travel permit by the North Korean government to visit China. Even though this reunion was not with a blood relative, it was more than she ever expected, Kim says.
"My sister-in-law is a connection to my family, and having the chance to meet her was a great experience for me," she says. "Even though I was not able to meet my mother or my brother, I still feel lucky."
According to the South Korean Red Cross, Kim may be the only South Korean to personally arrange a reunion with a North Korean relative last year. The numbers of those doing so independently have never been high, numbering at the most a few hundred a decade ago. That number fell to 18 in 2009, however, and a single reunion one year later.
This decrease is due to political tensions and the fact that most of these family members are now just too old to travel or have died, says Kim Seong-gun, director of the family reunion program at the South Korean Red Cross.
"Every year, about 3,600 people die while waiting to be reunited, that comes out to about 10 people a day," Kim said at the Red Cross office in Seoul.
Kim says 800,000 South Koreans are still waiting for the chance to see their North Korean relatives. With no sign of official reunions in sight, time will run out before that can happen for most of them.
In the past, when official reunions seemed unlikely, some South Koreans took matters into their own hands at great risk to both themselves and their North Korean relatives. Using ethnic Korean brokers in northeast China, some paid around 2 million won (US$1,730) to have their family members smuggled across the Tumen River. Chinese and North Korean guards are reported to have recently stepped up security along their border, especially after the death of the North's leader Kim Jong-il last month.
"It's become too dangerous now to have these types of reunions anymore," says Shin Gu-seop, whose small civic group called the Inter Korea Family Association helped arrange 100 of these reunions from the mid 1990s until 2007.
Human rights groups say North Koreans caught crossing into China are forcibly repatriated and face torture in prison camps. South Koreans caught assisting their escape can also end up imprisoned in China.
But if face-to-face reunions are impossible, there are other ways for the separated families to make contact, Shin says. For the past two decades his organization has been connecting relatives via mail.
Yang Tae-young, 86, sobs as he heads back home after a reunion with his relatives in North Korea in November 2010. Cross-border family reunions have been held on and off over the past 40 years with thousands of people still on the waiting list. (Yonhap file photo)
For Shin, 79, reuniting families by any means is a personal mission. He was separated from his brothers and sisters during the war, but now maintains regular correspondence with some of them. He also says he's helped about 400 other South Koreans do the same. Since there is no inter-Korean postal service, however, Shin must look abroad for middleman.
"We establish contacts in China or Japan that can send letters to family members in North Korea. North Koreans are permitted to send and receive mail from those countries," he says.
Shin has no doubt that the North Korean government monitors the mail coming in or going out of the country. He says every letter he received from his family there began with "We are doing well thanks to the great Kim Jong-il."
Shin shrugs off the censorship. He says even if they can't be completely open with one another, it's still better than nothing. And he does what he can to help out his siblings, no matter what they ask for.
"I used to send them winter clothes, but recently they've been asking me to send them luxury bags and shoes," he says.
His contacts in northeast China also smuggle mobile phones into North Korea so families living near the border can pick up reception off the Chinese network and receive calls from South Korea. Due primarily to the difficulty of setting up these over the phone reunions, he's only been able to assist several people in the past three years.
But embracing a family member, even for the first time, satisfies a longing that a letter or phone call cannot. Kim Young-ja, who met her sister-in-law earlier last year, realizes it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And given the decades old political divide across the Korean peninsula, she knows she will never be able to experience that type of encounter again.
"Since our reunion, I have had no contact with my relatives in North Korea," Kim says.
But the sister-in-law did leave her with one palpable memory to hold onto: a folder filled with old photographs of Kim's North Korean family.