The Agony and Ecstasy of North-South Family Reunions–View from HHK in Breaking News from The Australian

Joy and Despair in Korean Reunion Lotto
Rick Wallace, Tokyo correspondent
From: The Australian
November 03, 2010 12:00AM

RETIRED factory manager Kim Dae-jong doubts he will hold back the tears when he meets his young sister Gae-Hwa for the first time in almost 60 years today.

Separated since the Korean War, the pair will be reunited at the Diamond Mountain resort in the holiday region of Mount Kumgang in North Korea.

Mr Kim, who wound up in the South when the war ended, is one of the few to have won the Korean family reunion lottery.

He is part of a group of about 100 families chosen from a list of 40,000 and given the opportunity by the Red Cross in South and North Korea to meet their families again for the first, and most probably the last, time.

Mr Kim told The Australian before leaving for Mount Kumgang that only he and his elder brother ended up in the South; the rest of the family, including his parents, another brother and his young sister, were trapped in the North when the peninsula was divided.

“She was in the fifth grade of elementary school when we parted, and I think she is now 69 or 70 years old,” he said in an interview organised by the Red Cross.

As his brother died soon after the war, Mr Kim has been effectively isolated from his family and has heard next to nothing about their fate as he built a new life in Seoul running a factory and having a family of his own.

He has heard that his parents and other brother have died, but of his sister he knows nothing, other than that she is alive.

“All of us who have got separated family in the North are waiting for the chance to see them,” he said. “So when I first heard of the news that my turn just came, I could not believe if that was a dream or reality. I was too excited to sleep that night.”

Mr Kim will be clutching two 30kg packages of medicines and food (which are in short supply in the impoverished North) when he meets Gae-Hwa.

He is approaching the meeting with some trepidation as he’s heard sickening stories about unrelated people from the North posing as long-lost family members to receive the care packages the Southerners bring.

“So I would like to see if she is my sister for sure, asking questions like where we drifted apart. But, anyhow, I think I will know instinctively if we are really brother and sister. I think I will hold her tight once we find out.”

Reunions such as these are usually the first step in one of the periodic detentes between the two Koreas.

Seoul-based refugee advocate Tim Peters, who runs Helping Hands Korea, said that of the 1 million families separated by the war, the North allowed just a trickle of people to be reunited and sometimes the participants were left feeling hollow afterwards.

“There’s a pattern that after being separated for 55 years and meeting for just a few minutes, many times these folk plunge into a real depression because they know they will never see (their families) again,” said Mr Peters, whose organisation helps refugees who escape the North.

While the North retains tight supervision and control of the reunions, Mr Kim said he had not been told he couldn’t raise any particular issue when he meets Gae-Hwa.

“But I personally don’t think such topics as which life is better, or which place she would like to live in, would be suitable to raise as it could only make it uncomfortable.

“I would like to just ask her about the story of my mother and father and brother who died in the North.”

Mr Kim, a thoughtful and pragmatic man, supports Korean reunification, but doubts it will be achieved in his and Gae Hwa’s lifetime.

“So I am going to say to my sister, ‘I think this is the last time to see each other’. I think I won’t be able to hold back my tears.”