[Feature] Korean War survivors hopeful of seeing families in NK one last time

By Jung Min-kyung
  • Published : May 9, 2018 - 16:48
  • Updated : May 9, 2018 - 16:48

For Choi Ki-hong, the 1950-53 Korean War that divided the peninsula in half also stripped his whole family away from him.

When Choi left his hometown of Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province -- a battlefield during the war and now located just south of the demilitarized zone -- as a clueless five-year-old, he didn’t realize he would never see his family again.

Now 73 years old, Choi visited the Korean Red Cross’ main service center in central Seoul last week, hoping that he might be able to meet his long-lost family on the other side of the heavily fortified border.

“I’ve lived through a total of three inter-Korean summits and I have come again in hopes of reuniting with my parents and sisters, whom I haven’t been able to see or touch since I was five,” Choi told The Korea Herald. 

South Korean members of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War participate in a gathering jointly arranged by the Ministry of Unification and the Korean Red Cross on April 10 in Suwon. Yonhap

The Panmunjeom Declaration at the end of the third inter-Korean summit on April 27 called for the resumption of the reunions of families separated by the war. The event is planned to be held on Aug. 15, the day marking Korea’s liberation from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule. The venue and other details have yet to be announced but is expected to be confirmed through inter-Korean Red Cross talks likely to be held in the coming weeks.

Though the declaration reignited the hopes of those yearning to see their loved ones one last time, time is running out.

As of March, a total of 131,531 South Koreans are registered in the government database as members of families separated by the war; only 57,920 members survive today. This number accounts for less than half of the original registrants and nearly 20 percent of the survivors are in their 90s.

Their surviving North Korean counterparts fall in the same age range, but what’s dire is that the average life expectancy for those in North Korea is 67 for men and 74 for women, according to the latest World Health Organization date published in 2015.

Noting the urgency, Seoul’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters last month that the reunion will be considered a top priority over other exchanges and that the government seeks to initiate inter-Korean Red Cross talks as soon as possible.

Regular reunions are also expected to be discussed. While all forms of communication, including mail and phone, have been strictly prohibited between the two sides, family members in the South have been asking for a more sustainable communication program.

South Korean members of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War participate in a gathering jointly arranged by the Ministry of Unification and the Korean Red Cross on April 10 in Suwon. Yonhap

“The last time I saw my brother who’s two years older than me was in 2006 on the slopes of Mount Kumkang -- and I wish I could see him just one more time before I die,” Park Jin-soo, 84, said.

But for previous reunion participants like Park, the chances of getting picked for a second meeting is slim. The Red Cross is pushing for more frequent reunions, but for now, priority is given to the eldest and those who are still waiting to connect with immediate family members.

“The Red Cross told me I’m unlikely to be picked for the next reunion and I fear what I saw 12 years ago is the last I’ve seen of my brother,” Park added.

Choi and Park are part of a generation born in the ashes of World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 only to be divided at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. And they are the last generation that has immediate family members in North Korea.

Since 1985, 21 face-to-face family reunions have taken place, the most recent one in October 2015. Reunions have been suspended in recent years as inter-Korean ties deteriorated.

The North last year demanded the repatriation of 12 North Korean women who had worked at a restaurant in China and defected to the South in 2016 as a condition for resuming the reunions of separated families.

President of the Korean Red Cross here vowed Tuesday to “closely cooperate with the North‘s Red Cross during the soon-to-be-held meeting on humanitarian issues facing the two Koreas, such as the reunion of separated families.”

“By putting our heads together, (we) will do our best to find a fundamental resolution to the issue related to the separated families, something that our whole 80 million people have yearned for, and also seek inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian issues,” Park Kyung-seo, president of the Korean Red Cross, said at a meeting in Seoul marking the 71st anniversary of World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day.

By Jung Min-kyung (