Separated families hold each other one last time

By Jung Min-kyung
  • Published : Aug 22, 2018 - 16:00
  • Updated : Aug 22, 2018 - 16:06

Eighty-nine elderly South Koreans met their North Korean family members for what is likely to be the last time on Wednesday, in a reminder of the war that continues to plague the Korean Peninsula.

A group reunion session began around 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Kumgangsan Resort on the east coast of North Korea, wrapping up the first round of a reunion event for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. 

South Korean Kim Byung-oh and his North Korean sister Kim Soon-ok wipe their tears at their final meeting during the reunion event at the Kumgangsan Resort in North Korea on Wednesday. (Joint Press Corps)

The last part of the three-day event lasted three hours before the South Korean families reluctantly embarked on their trip back home around 1:30 p.m.

The second round will be held from Friday through Sunday, when a total of 83 North Koreans will reunite with their relatives from the South. More than 300 South Koreans will visit Kumgangsan for the event.

This is likely to be the last meeting for many separated family members on both sides of the border, due to their advanced age and deteriorating health.

The event’s participants shed silent tears as they prepared to bid each other goodbye.

“It’s only a 40-minute ride by car to Kaesong,” said 92-year-old Shin Jae-chun to his North Korean sister Shin Keum-soon, 70, who lives in the border town of Kaesong. The close proximity between Kaesong and Shin Jae-chun’s residence in the South’s border city of Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, only reminded the siblings of the cruel reality.

“Let’s have a meal together at our home before we die,” Shin Jae-chun told her sister, while reminding her of his bus number in the hope of being able to see her one more time before his departure.

Many exchanged addresses and phone numbers on the other side of the border. Some even drew family trees together on a piece of paper, making fresh additions on the branches. 

Families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War (Yonhap)

“I now have four nephews -- I want to remember their names as long as I live,” said Lee Soo-nam, 77, who met with his elder brother at the reunion.

While many were embracing their loved ones, some stood around awkwardly in confusion.

Brothers Lee Jae-il, 85, and Lee Jae-hwan casted doubt on their North Korean nephews who came to the resort on the first day of the event to meet them. When their nephews showed them a photo of their eldest brother -- who had died in 1997 after becoming separated from his own siblings during the war -- the surviving Lee brothers simultaneously said, “It’s not him.”

Lee Jae-hwan stood up and left the hall in anger, while Lee Jae-il stayed in his seat but continued to question his nephews. A document proving their relations was handed to the Lee brothers by North Korean authorities, but their perplexity was evident throughout the event.

“In the past, there were cases where family members would drop out of the reunion because they deemed whom they were meeting were not actually their family members,” a Red Cross employee said.

“But in this case, they continued to meet their family members, so we deem this as a ‘successful’ meeting.”

Another employee also said that meeting such “distant relatives” for the first time could prompt similar reactions, with most South Koreans no longer having direct family members surviving in the North.

Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office last year, officials and experts have expressed concern over the advanced age of the family members. While there were initially 132,124 South Korean members registered in a government database, only 56,990 remained alive as of August. Among them, nearly 86 percent of the group are 70 or older.

The last time the family reunion event was held was in October 2015. Before August, 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunions had been held since the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

In line with the reunion event, South Korea reaffirmed its efforts to hold such reunions regularly by consulting with North Korea on the matter, in a bid to better address humanitarian issues arising from decades of division, the South’s Ministry of Unification said Tuesday.

The family reunions were included as a clause in the agreement reached between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during an April summit in which they vowed to address humanitarian issues caused by decades of separation of families in the wake of the Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

By Jung Min-kyung & Joint Press Corps (

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