Korean Families Reunite After Decades Apart

ByJae-Suk Yoo

S E O U L, South Korea, Aug. 15, 2000 -- One hundred North Koreans were reunited with Southern relatives — separated for a half-century — in an outpouring of joy and pain televised live today in South Korea.

The scenes were repeated in Pyongyang, capital of the reclusiveStalinist North, where 100 South Koreans met with relatives forfour-day reunions that the leaders of the two Koreas agreed upon at asummit in June.

In Seoul, the elderly North Koreans, arriving from Pyongyang,were ushered into a giant hall at a convention center wherethe families were waiting. Cries and moans filled the room.

“Mother, be calm. Your son is here,” a 68-year-old man toldhis 95-year-old mother, who was so overcome with emotion that anurse rushed to her side to take her blood pressure.

“Father, father,” 52-year-old Cho Kyong-jae cried, kneeling infront of 78-year-old Cho Yong Gwan from North Korea.

“Oh, my son. I’m sorry. You’ve grown up nicely,” said theelder Cho, a state-decorated scientist in the North who was draftedinto the communist army during the 1950-53 Korean War. His wifedied 34 years ago, Cho’s son told him.

A Window on Pain and Separation

Men and women clutched each other, weeping and wailing. Theyconsoled each other with pats on the back and offered handkerchiefsto wipe away tears. Some were quieter, sad and pensive. Later, theyexchanged family stories and looked at old photo albums.

The reunions offered a window on the pain of separation sufferedby millions of Koreans on both sides of a sealed, militarizedborder that is the legacy of decades of hostility.

Family reunions are one of the most emotional issues that havedefined the long-running standoff between the two Koreas, whichwere once devoted to each other’s downfall but have made greatstrides toward reconciliation in recent months.

When the North Koreans arrived earlier today, their planepicked up 100 South Koreans to take to Pyongyang, where theirreunions were televised with a slight delay in the south.

In a Pyongyang hotel dining room, 56-year-old Kim Byung Kilcollapsed in the lap of his mother. “Mother, where have youbeen?” he cried.

“I am sorry,” whispered Kim’s mother, 82-year-old Suh Sun-hwa.

Suh, who lives in Seoul, lost her son in huge crowds of refugeesscrambling to cross a half-destroyed bridge near the North Koreancapital of Pyongyang during U.S. air raids at the start of theKorean War in 1950.

Suh kept asking her son where he went after they were separatedand where he has been living. The rugged-looking son abruptly satup and declared in a raised voice: “I have been living comfortablyunder the benevolent care of great General Kim Jong Il.”

Praise for North Korean Leader

Some of the North Koreans in both sets of reunions used theoccasion to underline their praise of the North’s leader, Kim JongIl. In Seoul, some of them wore dark suits with pins bearing theimage of the leader’s revered late father, Kim Il Sung.

In contrast with the North Korean travelers to Seoul, whoincluded many state-decorated luminaries, South Korean travelers tothe North were selected through a computer lottery and included nonotables.

Arriving in Seoul, the head of the North Korean delegation,78-year-old Yoo Mi Young, said more reunions would follow.

“I hope this development will help break down the wall ofconfrontation and division,” said Yoo, who defected to North Koreafrom the South in 1986 along with her husband, former South KoreanForeign Minister Choi Duk Shin. He died in 1989.

Rapprochement between the communist North and the democraticSouth accelerated after their leaders held a summit in June andpledged to work toward eventual reunification.

That goal remains distant and complex, but events like thefamily reunions—the first since 1985 — are likely to helpdissipate some of the animosity that has flourished since the1950-53 Korean War.

An Already-Celebrated Day

The four-day reunions begin today. Aug. 15 is a national holiday inboth Koreas which celebrates the anniversary of the peninsula’s liberationfrom Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.

In a nationally televised speech, South Korean President KimDae-jung vowed to work to end the threat of war between the Koreasand pursue economic and other exchanges ahead of reunification.

Kim suggested that future peace talks should focus oninstallation of an inter-Korean military hotline. His governmentalso wants to set up a meeting of defense ministers of the Northand South.

South Korea, which has one of the largest economies in theworld, is far wealthier than North Korea, where poor centralizedplanning, heavy military spending and bad weather have undercut theeconomy and forced Pyongyang to appeal for outside food aid.

Family reunions are a pressing issue because many aging familymembers have only a few years left to see relatives. Many peoplehave died without making contact. There is no mail, telephone orother direct means of communication between private citizens in thetwo Koreas.

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