Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tears as North and South Koreans meet after decades



Tears as North and South Koreans meet after decades

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
South Korean Lee Keum-seom (left), 92, meets with her North Korean son Ri Sung-chol, 71, at a reunion on Monday. AFp

Tears as North and South Koreans meet after decades

With tears and sobs, dozens of elderly and frail South and North Korean family members met on Monday for the first time since the peninsula and their relationships were torn apart by war nearly 70 years ago.

Clasping one another, they tried to bridge the decades of separation through precious physical contact and by showing each other pictures of their relatives.

Many of the North Korean women were clad in traditional dresses, known as hanbok in the South and joseon-ot in the North, and all had the ubiquitous badges of the North’s founder Kim Il-sung or his son and successor Kim Jong-il, while the Southerners wore their best suits.

As soon as 99-year-old South Korean Han Shin-ja approached their table, her two daughters – aged 69 and 72 – bowed their heads deeply towards her and burst into tears.

Han also broke down, rubbing her cheeks against theirs and holding their hands tightly. “When I fled during the war . . .” she began, choking back tears as if she were about to apologise for leaving them behind.

Millions of people were swept apart by the 1950-53 Korean War, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, and husbands and wives.

Hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war and the peninsula split by the impenetrable Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with all direct civilian exchanges – even mundane family news – banned.

The three-day reunion at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea, is the first for three years and follows a diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.

According to pool reports, the event began with a popular North Korean song Nice to Meet You – also well known in the South – blaring out from speakers.

Lee Keum-seom, now tiny and frail at 92, met her son for the first time since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband as they fled.

At the time Ri Sang-chol was aged just four. Lee shouted his name when she saw the now 71-year-old, before hugging him as both were overcome with emotion.

Her son showed her pictures of his family in the North – including her late husband – telling her: “This is a photo of Father.”

Before leaving for the meeting, Lee said: “I never imagined this day would come. I didn’t even know if he was alive.”

With time taking its toll, such parent-child reunions have become rare.

Since 2000 the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions but most of the more than 130,000 Southerners who signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died.

More than half the survivors are over 80, with this year’s oldest participant Baik Sung-kyu aged 101

South Korean Park Ki-dong, 82, met his two North Korean siblings, who had brought dozens of family photos with them.

Pak Sam Dong pointed at one of the images, telling his brother: “This is you.”

The older man stared at the picture silently, deep in thought, while his North Korean sister quietly wiped tears from her eyes.

Bittersweet

The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations worsened.

But after a rapid diplomatic thaw the North’s leader Kim Jong-un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to restart them at their first summit in April in the DMZ.

The two Koreas have since discussed cooperation in various fields at meetings between officials.

But while Kim and US President Donald Trump held a landmark summit in Singapore in June, Pyongyang has yet to make clear what concessions it is willing to make on its nuclear arsenal, while Washington is looking to maintain sanctions pressure on it.

Families at previous reunions have often found it a bittersweet experience, with some complaining about the short time they were allowed together and others lamenting the ideological gaps between them after decades apart.

Some of those selected for this year’s reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and they could only meet more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.

Over the next three days, the 89 families will spend only about 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents.

They will have only three hours in private before they are separated once again on Wednesday, in all likelihood for the final time.

MOST VIEWED

  • NY sisters inspired by Khmer heritage

    Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Cambodian-American sisters Edo and Eyen Chorm have always felt a deep affinity for their Cambodian heritage and roots. When the pair launched their own EdoEyen namesake jewellery brand in June, 2020, they leaned heavily into designs inspired by ancient Khmer

  • Cambodia records first Omicron community case

    The Ministry of Health on January 9 reported 30 new Covid-19 cases, 29 of which were imported and all were confirmed to be the Omicron variant. The ministry also reported 11 recoveries and no new deaths. Earlier on January 9, the ministry also announced that it had detected the Kingdom's

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa

  • Kampot tourism quay ‘90% done’

    Construction on Kampot International Tourism Port – a 4ha quay in Teuk Chhou district about 6km west of Kampot town – has fallen off track, reaching 90 per cent completion, according to a senior Ministry of Tourism official last week. The project is now planned to be finished

  • Demining rat ‘hero’ Magawa dead at 8

    A landmine-hunting rat that was awarded a gold medal for heroism for clearing ordnance from the Cambodian countryside has died, his charity said on January 11. Magawa, a giant African pouched rat originally from Tanzania, helped clear mines from about 225,000sqm of land – the equivalent of 42