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2009/09/23 10:03 KST
With joy comes remorse as S. Koreans await reunions with relatives in North

By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Sept. 23 (Yonhap) -- As a gift for his wife and son, Seok Chan-ik, 89, like many others preparing for reunions with their long-lost kin in North Korea this week, bought bagfuls of clothes, medications, toothpastes, toothbrushes and other daily necessities that would be rarities in the impoverished North.

   But what he truly wants to give is more emotional -- a ring.
Seok Chan-ik

His wife was 21 when Seok, then 29, fled to the South in 1948 when communism was taking over north of the border ahead of the Korean War. He never imagined the separation would be so long and that the lives of his family there would be so destitute.

   "I want to tell her, I know it's been hard," Seok, who remarried in the South, said over the telephone from his home in Sokcho on the east coast.

   "I couldn't give her a ring when we married. Seeing her 62 years later, I want to give her a gold ring if that would compensate for the tough life she had."

   Seok is one of the 100 South Koreans who were chosen to travel to the North's Mount Kumgang resort on Saturday to meet with their relatives in a new round of family reunions to be held for the first time in nearly two years.

   They are the lucky ones, selected through a computer lottery among tens of thousands of applicants, but meeting kin from the impoverished country goes way beyond cheery emotions. Many find their hearts weighed down by regret and helplessness.

   For Seok, who barely managed to make a living after the 1950-53 Korean War until he built a lodging business, even a bowl of noodles, a cheap snack in the South, was an uncomfortable reminder of his family in the North.

   "I thought about how we take this for granted, but how much they would like to have this in the North," he said.

   Seol Myeong-hi was 16 when the war broke out and he was conscripted into the South Korean military as an errand boy for U.N. troops. His home, Kaesong, initially belonged to South Korea when the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel after World War II, but the Chinese involvement in the Korean war pushed the borderline southward. When the war ended in 1953, his hometown became North Korean territory.

   The eldest of four children, Seol still remembers the last time he saw his family -- his mother carrying the youngest on her back, and another brother standing beside her, as they watched him depart for the battlefield.

   "The only thing I can think of is, I'm sorry I came alone, with all my family there," Seol said.

   Seol himself was too young to bear the weight of war, delivering meals and bullets to U.S. troops at mountaintop bases and doing laundry for them, but guilt still remains. He wanted to give as much as he could, packing gifts for his third brother and nephew who will come to the reunion.

   "I prepared as much as I'm legally allowed, clothes, U.S. dollars," he said. "This is the only chance. And the last."

   The Koreas began holding reunions for separated families in a major sign of thawing political relations after their historic first summit in 2000. A reunion was held in 1985, when ties briefly improved with the North's aid to the South over its flood damage. The arrangement at that time brought together 157 people, but it never became regular until after the summit.

   More than 127,000 people in the South had signed up for the reunions after they were regularized, but nearly a third of them died before their turn came. To reduce the backlog and assist those who are too frail to travel, the Koreas facilitated reunions using live video in 2005. More than 16,200 people were united in face-to-face events, while 3,700 others participated in video-linked reunions.

   But political tensions mounted after the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak came to power in the South last year. Lee toughened up on the North's nuclear drive and suspended massive aid, while North Korea boycotted dialogue and suspended the family reunions. A shooting incident of a South Korean tourist at the reunion venue, Mount Kumgang, last year further chilled the mood.

   The North's agreement last month to resuming the reunions was one of the major signs it was shifting to a more reconciliatory tone with the South.

   For many, seeing long-lost kin has been their lifelong wish, but after nearly six decades of separation, they will come from an unfamiliar world, a monolithic country devoid of freedom and driven by unquestioned loyalty to their "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.

   The three-day reunions for people from South Korea will be held mostly in open places, except for a couple hours on the second day, during which the families can meet privately in hotel rooms. But even during private time, it is often difficult to have a heart-to-heart talk.

   "How they lived, how much it has been hard up there, I want to ask. But they wouldn't be able to talk about that," Bae Seong-jin, 72, set to meet his younger brother and sister, said.

   "There will be guards accompanying them," he said. "It will be a difficult situation. I'm afraid that all I can do is just see their face."

   Three days would be too short to make up for the lost time, especially when most of the families are not likely to get another chance to see each other.

   "We meet to part again," Seok, who bought a gold ring for his wife in the North, said. "It may be easier not to see her at all. But I'd rather see her, if only once."