Families share memories of decades apart

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Feb 20, 2014 - 23:05
  • Updated : Feb 20, 2014 - 23:29
Lee Sun-hyang (left), 88, from South Korea, bursts into tears with her long-lost younger bother, Lee Yoon-geun. (Yonhap)

MOUNT GEUMGANGSAN, North Korea ― Kim Young-hwan, 90, could not let go of the shriveled hands of his son whom he had left in North Korea 60 years ago as they reunited at this snowy mountain resort on Thursday.

“I’m sorry, so sorry,” Kim said, bursting into tears immediately after recognizing the face of his gray-haired son, Dae-sung, who was only 5 when the father crossed the border at the height of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Joining the tearful reunion was his wife in the North, Kim Myung-ok. The once young and beautiful wife who prayed every day for her husband’s safe return is now 87.

The older Kim never thought his choice would separate him from his entire family for such a long time. Though he successfully put down roots in the South and formed a new family, not a single day has passed without guilt, remorse and longing for the loved ones he left behind.

“My father lived his whole life with guilt for leaving his family in the North. He used to say that he wants to meet them and hold them tight in his arms,” said Kim Se-jin, Kim’s son from his second marriage in the South. 

Kim Seong-yun (left) is reunited Thursday with her sister and nephews during the family reunions at Mount Geumgangsan resort. (Park Hae-mook and Joint Press Corps)

The emotional encounter is one of a myriad of stories shared by some 320 members of the 82 separated families at Mt. Geumgansan, which means Diamond Mountain.

The much-trumpeted event was dominated by tears of pent-up sorrow, with many participants remaining speechless in each other’s arms for minutes.

For Lee Young-shil, 88, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to see her daughter, Dong Myong-sook, 67, and her sister Ri Jong-sil, 85, whom she left in the North during the war. Suffering from dementia, however, she was not able to recognize any of them.

“Mom, this is my aunt, your sister,” Dong repeatedly whispered in her mother’s ears in a desperate attempt to bring back her memories. 

Ryu Yeong-sik, 91, dances for joy after meeting his nephew Ryu Ok-seon during the family reunion at Mount Geumgangsan resort on Thursday. (Joint Press Corps)

The first thing that Kim Myung-bok, 66, mentioned was his mother after continuously bursting into tears with his 68-year-old sister from North Korea, Kim Myung-ja.

“You don’t know how much mother missed you before she passed away 10 years ago,” Kim said.

“Before father died, he asked me to see you again for sure. That was his last wish.” 

Lee Bum-ju, 86, never stopped asking questions about long-lost families, expressing sorrow and regret about not having been able to take care of them.

“Grandfather told me to flee first during the war just because I was the eldest son,” Lee said, while tears ran down his cheeks. 

South Korean Kim Se-rin (right), 85, looks at pictures of his family members in North Korea with his sister and cousin during the family reunions held at the Mount Geumgangsan resort on Thursday. (Park Hae-mook and Joint Press Corps)

Despite a bad cold that struck Kim Sum-Kyung, 91, it was not enough to thwart his resolve to see his children.

Kim set out to the scenic mountain resort in an ambulance, saying he would rather die than miss the chance to see his children.

In another ambulance was Choi Jeong-ho, 91, who had her legs wounded in a car accident but took off her plaster cast two weeks ago just to see her siblings.

Choi Byung-kwan, 67, hugged his half-siblings who were born to Choi’s late father and his new wife in North Korea in a rush of emotions.

He stared silently at the family picture of his father, whose face he remembered vaguely from childhood. “He must have not been so lonely.”

When Sohn Ki-ho, 91, met with his daughter, he was struck by not only the 61-year-old white-haired woman but also a stranger standing next to her ― his grandson.

Sohn left his then 2-year-old daughter at his father-in-law’s in North Korea and fled to the South with his parents and wife during the war.

“I can still vividly recall her waving her hands to me at the door. I never knew a temporary refuge would split us apart,” he said. “I just thank her for staying alive.”

Later in the day, the separated families joined for dinner, playfully thrusting chicken wraps into each others’ mouths and taking Polaroid pictures together.

Most participants appeared at ease compared with their earlier gathering. They traded old photos and lively conversations, while sharing rice cakes, chicken cold cuts, grilled trout and other Korean dishes.

While long-separated families enjoyed their time together, Lee Geun-soo, 84, could only watch the scene on TV with the deepest longing. His failing health had stopped him not only from attending the reunion but also eating and sleeping properly.

Lee was recently struck with a severe case of prostate and spine conditions, which forced him to abandon his plan to see his sister Hyang-ja for the first time in 66 years.

“Even if I did see her, I wasn’t sure if my body would hold up,” Lee said, tears welled up in his eyes.

“I don’t know if I will live to see my sister. I had so much to ask her.” 

By Shin Hyon-hee and Joint Press Corps (

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