For Families Split by Korean War, a Bittersweet Reunion or Despair

By Ju Min Park 30 September 2015

SEOUL — For 87-year-old Lee Yong-nyo, the last chance to meet a daughter she had not seen for decades disappeared with the click of a mouse.

The Red Cross was holding a computer algorithm-driven lottery in Seoul, the first step in choosing 100 South Koreans who can meet kin in the North separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Tens of thousands of South Koreans have applied to meet families living in North Korea. When the two governments agree, the Red Cross sets up a three-day meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort near their border for some of the families.

“My heart is going to burst,” wept Lee after she did not make the first cut at the Red Cross draw for the next reunion in October.

“I want to find my daughter, or at least know if she is dead or alive. I left her when she was three. When am I going to get the chance, if not now?”

The reunions are an important marker for the state of relations between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war. Nineteen such reunions have been held since 2000, the last one in February, 2014.

The random draw whittles down the list to 500 from the 66,000 South Koreans who have registered for the visits. The Red Cross pares the number to 250, reflecting applicants’ health and whether they still want to go.

Authorities in the North then try to locate the relatives, and finally, about 100 families are chosen for the reunion, with the elderly and those with immediate family members on the other side getting priority.

“I can’t begin to tell you how empty I feel now,” said Jung Se-hoon, an 85-year-old man seeking his mother and three younger siblings. He did not make it through the computerised draw either.

For those who win, the victory is bittersweet.

Kang Neung-hwan was among 82 South Koreans picked to visit the North in February 2014, the last time the Koreas held reunions of family members, briefly seeing the son he had never met and will probably never see again.

“I wish it was 10 days or two weeks, but three days went so fast,” Kang, 94 and in declining health, said from the couch of his home in Seoul, pictures of his son on the wall behind him.

The meetings, held in a ballroom of the resort, are watched by officials and media and include only two hours of private meeting time, if previous reunions are a guide.

Kang was a schoolteacher when he joined a wave of people fleeing the North as China entered the war, leaving behind his wife of four months and promising to return. He had not known that she was pregnant, and that the border would be shut.

When he applied to join a reunion he hoped to see his lost sister. Kang learned that she had died but discovered he had a son: “I hugged him and told him: be healthy and I hope unification will happen soon before I die so we can meet again.”

A government guidebook for South Korean participants discourages questions about whether their relatives eat well, advised them not to talk about politics, and warned them against getting drunk on potent North Korean liquor.

Compared to the South, North Korea is impoverished. But its leaders maintain that the people are well fed and prosperous.

Im Chae-yong’s siblings were unsuccessful on several attempts to see their eldest brother in the North.

Then, Im learned that his brother, now 83, was looking for relatives in the South. With his sister, Im joined the last reunion trip and saw the brother he had never met.

They took a watch, socks and aspirin for their brother, who gave them photos of his own family and a gift package of blueberry liquor and a red tablecloth, which every North Korean participant had.

“We were eating and talking but that North Korean song ‘Nice to Meet You’ kept playing so loud we couldn’t really hear each other,” Im recalled.

“My brother was also hard of hearing so we had to shout.”