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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Watching the Time Slip Away

Koreans despairing of reuniting with family across the DMZ are dying, some by suicide.

April 30, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOYANG, South Korea — Chung In Kook, 82, woke before sunrise and slipped out of the house. He didn't say goodbye to his wife. He took a taxi heading north, and when it couldn't go any farther, he got out and walked the rest of the way to an observatory at the edge of the DMZ.

Then he jumped.

When the body was examined, police quickly discovered the reason for the suicide: A slip of paper folded into his wallet identified Chung as Applicant No. 4040 for a government-sponsored reunion for South Koreans to meet family members in North Korea. Just days earlier, Chung had learned that, for the fourth time, he wasn't among those lucky few selected by computer to participate in the latest round of reunions.

"There is no hope. At this pace, I'll never be picked," he told his wife shortly before he killed himself in the demilitarized zone, which was as close as he could get to the North.

This week, nearly 900 Koreans from both sides of the divided peninsula are meeting family members they haven't seen for more than half a century. The fourth such reunion since 2000, this, like the others, is proving to be a tremendously emotional occasion. Many tears are being spilled.

But those tears are literally drops in the bucket, given that up to 10 million Koreans--one-seventh of the population of the peninsula--have relatives on the opposite side whom they are unlikely to see before they die. It is a classic case of too little, too late, especially for the elderly and infirm, who see their chances waning with each passing year.

Statistics released recently by the South Korean government showed that 12.4% of the 117,576 applicants on a waiting list for reunions had died.

Despite the euphoria that followed the historic visit of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang, the North's capital, nearly two years ago, there have been fewer reunions than anticipated, largely because the North Koreans have balked. The fourth round was supposed to take place in mid-October but was abruptly canceled by the North, which objected to a state of alert imposed in South Korea after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"At the current rate, we will be lucky if one out of 10,000 people gets to see their relatives," said Min Byung Dai, the director of South-North relations for the South Korean Red Cross in Seoul. "It is like a lottery. The chances of being picked in any given round are very small, but people keep on trying for any chance they can get."

In the turbulent period after the end of World War II, when Korea was partitioned between Soviet and U.S.-administered sectors, millions of Koreans fled their homes to align themselves with one side or the other.

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Family Left Son Behind in 1945

Chung In Kook, a 25-year-old civil servant at the time, left his home in Shinchon, North Korea, in the dark of night in 1945 to escape the Communists. His wife followed him shortly afterward, carrying their infant son strapped to her back, but the couple's 5-year-old boy was left behind with his paternal grandparents.

"[The grandparents] wouldn't let the boy go. They said they loved him too much, that it would be too hard for him to make the trip. So I let him stay," Lim Young Seon, Chung's 78-year-old widow, recalled as she sat under an arbor of lilacs and ivy at the family's home.

In South Korea, the family prospered and grew. The couple had four more children--three boys and a girl. Chung quickly found work as a police officer and in later years turned to a more lucrative career as a real estate broker.

But as he aged, Chung grew increasingly melancholy about his family left behind in North Korea. While his wife fretted about their first-born son--they couldn't even find out if he had survived the Korean War--Chung missed his parents and became consumed with guilt about neglecting his filial duty to care for them in their old age.

"I am a sinner. I deserted my parents," Chung used to say, his wife recalled.

At Chung's insistence, the couple moved in 1996 from Seoul to Goyang, a pretty suburb nestled in the hills to the north and known for its abundance of flower nurseries. The attraction for Chung, however, was its proximity to the North Korean border. From here, it's only 80 miles to his hometown of Shinchon--in any normal country an easy day trip, but in Korea so unthinkable that Shinchon might as well be in another galaxy.

To console himself, Chung went regularly to a small observatory built next to a bridge over the Imjin River, which runs down from North Korea and wends its way through the DMZ. The northernmost reach of South Korea, it is a popular spot for tourists, who can catch glimpses through the barbed wire of the forbidden country still farther north, and for separated family members, who come, especially on holidays, with offerings of food for traditional Confucian rituals honoring their ancestors.

Chung had been there with his wife and children just four days before his death to mark Chusok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving.

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