Long-separated Korean families are reunited in emotional step toward North-South thaw

Wednesday, August 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Gregg Jones / The Dallas Morning News

SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea on Tuesday took another historic step toward ending half a century of hostilities, as three days of emotional reunions among long-lost family members began on both sides of the world's final Cold War frontier.

Sobs and shrieks filled a Seoul meeting hall as 100 North Koreans, many of them elderly and infirm, were reunited with their southern families. The scene was similar at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where 100 South Koreans were reintroduced to parents and siblings in the Communist state after 50 years of separation.

Few words were spoken at first as families wept, embraced and caressed faces that existed only in photographs and fading memories until Tuesday.

"Fifty years!" wailed a North Korean son in Seoul, sobbing as he bowed to his wheelchair-bound father, his only surviving parent. "Mother should be here next to you!"

"All I was thinking about was my family for 50 years," said Kang Young-won, a North Korean university professor who was reunited with his mother in Seoul. They were separated during the 1950-53 Korean War when he was 16 years old.

"Now if I die, it's OK, because I've seen my family. My joy is beyond words," Mr. Kang said.

The family reunions are the result of the historic June summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his reclusive North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il. More are planned for later this year.

An estimated 10 million Koreans – North and South – are members of separated families, according to Korean Red Cross officials.

Key first step

The reunions are seen in South Korea as an important first step toward reconciliation with North Korea and eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula, which has been bitterly divided along ideological lines since the end of World War II.

The lingering conflict has continued to put 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea in harm's way. And U.S. officials have cited North Korea's attempts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as a primary motivation for developing a strategic missile-defense shield.

For Mr. Kim, South Korea's leader, the family reunions are a vindication of his efforts to improve ties with North Korea since taking office in February 1998. Mr. Kim has persistently sought to ease the estrangement between the two Koreas. The split has resulted in a ban on communications between the two countries since the war and only limited official and economic contacts over the decades.

The reunions are being carefully managed by both sides and conducted in the glare of public view and intense media coverage. The visitors won't be allowed to go to their family's homes or even pay their respects at the graves of deceased parents.

The historic day – celebrated in both Koreas as the 55th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule – began with the late-morning arrival of 100 North Koreans in Seoul. At noon, 100 South Koreans boarded the same North Korean airliner for the 55-minute flight to see relatives in Pyongyang.

Sobbing relatives

As the North Koreans left their hotel in the wooded hills of Seoul's eastern outskirts for the bus ride to the reunion site, anxious South Korean relatives held up placards with the names of family members. Some North Koreans spotted their names and waved greetings to sobbing relatives, some of whom weren't even born when their families were divided by the peninsula's bitter Cold War politics.

Lee Jang-yong talked excitedly to his mother over a cell phone as he and his son held a placard that read: "Welcome Uncle Hwang Uk-gu."

"I saw him coming in," he shouted to his mother, who had become worried when she hadn't seen her brother step off the North Korean plane when it arrived at Seoul's Kimpo Airport. "We waved, and he saw us!"

Missing brother

Mr. Lee's mother thought her brother had died during the war, said Mr. Lee. When she got a call from the Korean Red Cross a few weeks ago informing her that her brother was alive and wanted to see her, "she was jumping with joy and crying," Mr. Lee said.

When the North Koreans entered the meeting hall at Seoul's Convention and Exhibition Center shortly after 4:30 p.m., an hour behind schedule, poignant dramas played out at each of the 100 tables spread around the vast room.

"I thought you had been shot, so we didn't look for you," wailed Paik Bok-hwa, clutching her 68-year-old North Korean brother, Paik Gi-taek, as they fell to the floor. "But your sister went to look for you. You don't know how long she's been looking for you. She climbed mountains and crossed rivers to look for you everywhere."

Their mother had gone to her grave thinking of her lost son, Ms. Paik said.

"Mother was so happy to have you," she said.

"She was always looking for you, even in her dreams. When she died, she didn't even close her eyes. You go tell her to close her eyes. She was only thinking about you."

Lee Dok-soon, 86 years old and suffering from stomach cancer, was pushed into the hall in a wheelchair to meet her 65-year-old son, An Soon-hwan.

A mother's final wish

Kim Dong-man, a South Korean meeting his 74-year-old brother from the North, Kim Dong-jin, recalled their mother's final wish.

"Mother told me to bury her facing north, to wait for you," said Mr. Kim, the South Korean brother.

As the initial shock and emotions wore off, families sat at their tables holding hands. They exchanged gifts, pored over photo albums and caught up on five decades of family news and gossip.

The North Koreans – hand-picked by the ruling Communist Party – seemed guarded in their conversations and were careful to toe the party line when speaking to reporters.

"The Great Leader, Kim Jong Il, has raised me well!" said one man. Another, a sobbing North Korean son reunited with his mother, said, "Thanks to the general [Kim Jong Il] who made this visit with my mother possible!"

Bearing gifts

Many of the Pyongyang-bound southerners, mindful of North Korea's chronic shortages of food, electricity and most other items, carried practical gifts such as cash, overcoats, socks and warm clothing.

Choi Tae-hyun, 69, was going to present seven rings to the North Korean wife he last saw when she was 25 – a gift his South Korean wife had picked out.

"I'm not sure if I would recognize her when I see her," said Mr. Choi, who was forced into the North Korean army, taken prisoner by southern forces and then chose to remain in the South at the end of the war.

Those left behind

He was also going to meet the two children he left behind in the north – a son who was 6 when he went off to war in 1951 and a daughter who was an infant.

Before boarding the plane for Pyongyang, 72-year-old Cho Yoon-jin echoed the fear of many of the family members, North and South: Would he recognize the North Korean wife and children he would be seeing for the first time in 50 years?

"My sense of delight is indescribable, but I can't say much because it has been too long," he said. "Right now, my heart and mind are numb."