Traumatic final farewell for reunited Korean families

2015-10-22 08:50
South Korean Park Yong-Deuk cries with his North Korean sister Park Ryong-Sun, as they bid farewell following their three-day separated family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast. (KPPA, AFP)

South Korean Park Yong-Deuk cries with his North Korean sister Park Ryong-Sun, as they bid farewell following their three-day separated family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast. (KPPA, AFP)

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Seoul - North and South Korean families were forced to say a final, traumatic farewell Thursday after meeting for the first time in more than 60 years, as the joy of temporary reunion gave way to the grief of permanent separation.

On the third and last day of their all-too brief, emotionally charged reunion in a North Korean mountain resort, the families were given two hours in the morning to say their last goodbyes.

It was perhaps the most fraught part of the entire event, with relatives on both sides, especially the elderly in their 70s, 80s or even 90s all too aware that this was likely the last time they would ever see each other.

Some spent their last minutes together simply clinging to each other, while others sought to put on a brave face, holding hands and wiping away tears as they sat at numbered tables in the resort's main banquet area.

TV footage from the resort showed one elderly North Korean woman trying to keep the mood on her table upbeat, challenging everyone to an arm wrestle to show off her physical health.

But then the North Koreans boarded buses to take them home, prompting desperate final scenes as they pressed their hands and faces to the windows, trying to maintain eye contact with their weeping South Korean relatives outside as the vehicles moved away.

It was only the second reunion to be held in the past five years, and interaction was tightly controlled, limited to six, two-hour sessions, including meetings in a communal hall and private one-on-one time without TV cameras.

For the nearly 400 South Koreans and their 140 relatives taking part, the 12 hours of total face time was heartbreakingly short after more than six decades of separation caused by the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean Lee Jeong-Suk wipes the tears of her North Korean father Ri Heung-Jong,  as they bid farewell following their three-day separated family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast. (KPPA, AFP)

"It would have been wonderful if we could have talked and slept in the same room, instead of just meeting on and off," said 70-year-old Han Sun-Kyu who was meeting his North Korean aunt.

"And I wish we could have eaten meals just as a family, instead of in the big hall with everybody else," he added.

For all the restrictions, the participants were the lucky ones, chosen from among the tens of thousands on waiting lists for a rare reunion spot.

Millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the Korean conflict, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.

Among the South Korean generation that actually experienced the division, the vast majority died without ever having any contact with their relatives in the North and, in many cases, without knowing if they were even alive.

With the mortality rate of reunion candidates increasing with every passing year, many accept they may never be selected and have resorted instead to taping video messages, and providing DNA samples that might allow for some posthumous contact in the future.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and the demographic of those taking part has shifted significantly in the intervening 15 years.

This time around there were only five families in which spouses or parents and children were reunited, compared to 23 back in 2010.

A song to remember

At a communal dinner on Wednesday evening, Lee Jeong-Sook, aged68, asked her North Korean father, 88-year-old Ri Hong-Jong, to sing a song so that she would remember his voice.

He responded with a popular song about the river close to his hometown in the South, prompting everyone else at their table to burst into tears.

The departure from the resort marked the end of the first stage of the six-day reunion with another group of families from both sides scheduled to meet from Saturday to Tuesday.

In a reflection of the stark economic divide between the two Koreas, all the South Korean families had brought gift packages, including winter clothing, watches, cosmetics and, in most cases several thousand US dollars in cash.

South Korean officials had warned in advance that a substantial slice of any money handed over would be "appropriated" by the authorities in the North.

Read more on:    south korea  |  north korea

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