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Relatives from North and South Korea meet again

After a two-year hiatus, the nations allow reunions at Mt. Kumgang in the North. The meetings of those separated by the 1950-53 war are bittersweet.

October 04, 2009|Ju-min Park

SEOUL — Lee Juk-jul remembers climbing aboard a truck packed with neighbors and friends during the Korean War after hearing a rumor that Chinese soldiers might come to kidnap Korean girls.

As she left her family in North Korea, Lee had no idea that truck ride to the South would separate her from her family, including her only sister, for 59 years.

Now, through a recently reinstated bilateral program to reduce the emotional toll of hostilities between North and South Korea, the sisters have reunited. They and other family members hugged and wept before catching up on family events at a special gathering for several families last weekend at Mt. Kumgang, on North Korea's east coast.

"You cannot imagine how many years I have been waiting for this moment," said the frail, half-blind Lee, who is 79.

During the war, Lee's sister, Lee Geum-pa, now 80, boarded a smuggling vessel to go to the South. But when the ship was about to depart, her terrified husband asked her to abandon their crying daughter to avoid being detected by North Korean authorities. Rather than leave the child behind, she let her husband go alone.

The sisters, like hundreds of thousands of relatives living apart in the Korean peninsula, were not permitted to communicate after the armistice in 1953. Though the family program has allowed some relatives to see one another in recent years, the last reunion had been in 2007, and prospects for more appeared uncertain after the election of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office last year.

This summer, after months of tension over North Korea's nuclear program, the two sides agreed to restart the reunions.

The recent gatherings, which involved fewer than 200 families meeting over several days, ending Thursday, included two abducted South Korean fishermen and a South Korean, a former prisoner of war, living in North Korea.

Lee Kwae-seok, 79, the former POW, turned tearful when his 78-year-old brother Lee Jung-ho told him about their mother's death.

"I have never once forgotten about my mother," Lee Kwae-seok said, according to local news reports. Until June, his family assumed that the South Korean soldier had died in the war.

Some critics say that the reunion program works too slowly and involves too few families. Many elderly people on both sides die before they can reconnect with loved ones, critics say.

On Monday, a 75-year-old man, who apparently had been frustrated by not being granted a reunion opportunity, killed himself by jumping into the path of a train in suburban Seoul, news reports said.

"A grand political compromise between the two Koreas on separated families should be made instead of sporadic events," said Yoon Yeo-sang, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

On the last day of a recent three-day reunion, relatives saying goodbye were heard offering such encouragement as "stay healthy" and "keep alive," or sadly saying, "I am leaving you again."

Dozens of South Koreans waved to their North Korean kin as the Southerners boarded a bus home.

Lee Juk-jul said she considered the reunion the first and last of her life. Though she knew that she was luckier than those who did not get to see loved ones, she said she could not feel happy because she and her sister had to part again.

"It is another tragedy to me."

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Park is in The Times' Seoul Bureau.

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