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(Yonhap Feature) After brief reunions, tearful goodbyes with no promise to meet again

2018/08/22 14:18

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By Koh Byung-joon

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Aug. 22 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- Kim Byeong-oh, an 88-year-old man, looked into the air without saying a word for a while. Soon tears ran down his cheeks as he was saddened by the fact that it was the last chance for him to see his long-separated 81-year-old sister Sun-ok from the North.

"Don't cry," Sun-ok said, gently holding the hands of her South Korean brother. But she couldn't help but cry since they will have to be split after brief reunions held over the past few days here, without a guarantee to meet again.

The two were among the 89 South Korean and 185 North Korean people selected to take part in the three-day reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The rare event was held at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on North Korea's east coast from Wednesday.

The elderly South Koreans crossed the heavily fortified border in buses on Monday and held six sessions of meetings with their North Korean families. They had a combined 12 hours to see each other.

Hugging and tears of joy dominated their first encounter on Monday as many were overwhelmed with excitement to see their loved ones for the first time in decades.

In this photo taken by the Joint Press Corps, a North Korean family member of Baik Min-joon, 93, wipes her tears with a handkerchief during a group reunion held at Mount Kumgang on Aug. 21, 2018. (Yonhap) In this photo taken by the Joint Press Corps, a North Korean family member of Baik Min-joon, 93, wipes her tears with a handkerchief during a group reunion held at Mount Kumgang on Aug. 21, 2018. (Yonhap)

Some exchanged photos that they have cherished for years in hopes of using them to identify sisters, brothers and other relatives that they have not seen in more than six decades.

For many, it didn't take much to recognize their families.

Ham Seong-chan, a 93-year-old man from the South, knew immediately that the person sitting across the table was his long-lost younger brother despite decades of separation.

"I knew you are my brother at first glance ... You look just like our mother," Ham told Dong-chan, 79, with big smile on his face.

"I also knew you were my brother right away," Dong-chan said.

Lee Keum-seom, 92, also immediately recognized her son, Ri Sangchol, 71, when they met for the first time since they were torn apart in the chaos of the war.

"Sangchol!" Lee said, bursting into tears as she called her son's name. "How many kids do you have?" Lee asked her son, holding his hands tight. "This is father," Ri said, showing the photo of his father who passed away years ago in the North.

This photo taken by the Joint Press Corps shows Lee Keum-seom (L), 92, with her son during a family reunion event at a Mount Kumgang resort on North Korea's east coast on Aug. 20, 2018, after nearly seven decades of separation caused by the Korean War. (Yonhap) This photo taken by the Joint Press Corps shows Lee Keum-seom (L), 92, with her son during a family reunion event at a Mount Kumgang resort on North Korea's east coast on Aug. 20, 2018, after nearly seven decades of separation caused by the Korean War. (Yonhap)

More than six decades of separation has obviously taken a toll on the families' looks and memories, which sometimes led to confusion, especially for Lee Jae-il, 85, and his 76-year-old South Korean brother, Jae-hwan.

They left the venue unsure whether the North Korean people who came to the reunions were actually their long-lost family members.

The man in the photo brought by what they believed to be the son and daughter of their late brother in the North didn't look like him at all.

"They do not appear to be our nephew and niece," Jae-hwan said, leaving the hotel where their first meeting was held on Monday.

The first-day excitement and nervousness tinted with confusion seemed to melt away the following day when they privately met in their hotel rooms and ate lunch together only by themselves.

They looked more loosened up, intimate and freer in expressing their feelings. Tears and nervousness were replaced by laughter and smiles, with some even exchanging jokes and giggling.

As the reunions were nearing an end, however, the mood got subdued as they were reminded of the grim reality that this would be the last chance for them to see their families before they die.

The eyes of 61-year-old Ri Chol from the North got teary when he saw his 93-year-old grandmother Kwon Seok during their last farewell meeting on Wednesday.

They were at a loss for words for a while, just holding each other's hands. A South Korean son who accompanied Kwon broke the silence, saying, "Don't cry, Chol."

  

This photo taken by Joint Press Corps shows Yoo Kwan-sik (L), 89, pose for pictures with his long-separated daughter from the North during a group reunion at Mount Kumgang on Aug. 21, 2018. (Yonhap) This photo taken by Joint Press Corps shows Yoo Kwan-sik (L), 89, pose for pictures with his long-separated daughter from the North during a group reunion at Mount Kumgang on Aug. 21, 2018. (Yonhap)

This week's family reunions came amid a thaw in relations between the two Koreas after a yearslong hiatus and tensions heightened by the North's continued pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.

Inter-Korean relations have been improving in a dramatic way since earlier this year when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered the olive branch of sending his athletes and a delegation to the Winter Olympics hosted in South Korea in March.

The two Koreas have resumed cross-border talks ever since amid a growing sense of peace, which culminated in historic summits. Their leaders are expected to meet again in Pyongyang next month.

During the April summit in particular, they agreed to work toward the "complete" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, halt hostile acts and expand long-frozen exchanges and cooperation.

The denuclearization process, however, has been stalemated recently as the United States and North Korea appear to be at odds over how and at what speed the North should relinquish its nuclear weapons program.

Considering that the separated family issue has frequently been influenced by the ups and downs of political and diplomatic situations, uncertainty lingers over if and when another such event will take place.

South Korea has demanded to hold family reunions on a regular basis. North Korea has been reluctant, apparently because those meetings could expose its people to South Koreans living in a wealthier and more liberal society.

Another challenge is that there are still many people waiting to see their loved ones again, and most of them are in their 70s and older, indicating that the window of opportunity for their reunions with families in the North is fast closing down.

Previously, the two Koreas had held 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunions since the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000.

A hundred people or so from each of the two Koreas were selected for each event, still a small fraction of some 57,000 people wishing to be chosen to see their loves ones in the North.

For this week's event, the first of its kind since October 2015, the 89 South Koreans were selected from 500 applicants first chosen through a computer lottery. That number was later whittled down to 250, and the list was finalized based on age, health and other factors.

Lee Su-nam, 77, was grateful to be chosen for the reunions, where he could see his long-lost brother Jong-song and North Korean nephew Myong-hun. He, however, couldn't avoid expressing frustration over a long period of division after the temporary reunions.

"It is beyond description," he said, referring to the strong sense of joy he felt when he met his brother for the first time since the war. "(But) it is frustrating. Could we see each other again? It appears impossible unless we are young."

   He asked his 50-year-old North Korean nephew to jot down names of his family members, including children and grandchildren, on a piece of paper, saying that he will keep them in his heart.

"I am going to remember them until I die," he said.

kokobj@yna.co.kr

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