Close to 400 South Koreans, many of them elderly and nearly all in a state of fevered anticipation, gathered Monday before crossing into North Korea for a rare reunion with separated family members.
Beginning Tuesday in the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang, it will be only the second such reunion in the past five years — the result of an agreement the two Koreas reached in August to de-escalate tensions that had pushed them to the brink of armed conflict.
Tens of millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the 1950-53 Korean War, which saw the frontline yo-yo from the south of the Korean peninsula to the northern border with China and back again.
The chaos and devastation separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.
“We were separated at the beginning of the war when I was just nine years old,” Choi Kum-Sun, 75, said of her elder brother in the North.
“I had no idea that he was still alive, but then I got the notification that he wanted to see me. I still can’t believe it,” she wept.
Like a significant number of the elderly or infirm participants, Choi was in a wheelchair. She told AFP she had packed clothes, food and US$1,000 in cash to take as a gift.
– No contact –
Because the Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.
The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the numbers clamouring for a chance to participate have always far outstripped those actually selected.
The 394 people gathered in Sokcho city on South Korea’s northeast coast were called to the reunion by 100 North Koreans chosen to take part in the event.
All were to spend the night in the Hanwha resort in Sokcho before an early start to the heavily-fortified border nearby and then on to Mount Kumgang.
Over the next three days, they will sit down with their North Korean relatives six times — both in private and in public meetings.
With more than 65,000 South Koreans currently on the waiting list for a reunion spot, they represent the lucky few, although the event itself is very bittersweet.
Each interaction only lasts two hours, meaning the family members have a total of just 12 hours to mitigate the trauma of more than six decades of separation.
And for those in their 80 and 90s, the final farewell on Thursday after three days is tainted by the near certainty that there will never be another meeting.
– ‘Mixed feelings’ –
“I have mixed feelings,” said 90-year-old Hong Rok-Ja who, together with her sister, was going to meet her brother who had gone missing in 1950.
“Of course I want to see him, but I’m so worried I won’t recognise him, or that I’ll be too excited to say anything,” Hong said.
“There is so much I want to know,” she added.
On Friday, 100 selected South Koreans will gather in Sokcho for the second stage of the reunion, when they will get to see the North Korean relatives they requested.
Pyongyang has a lengthy track record of manipulating the divided families’ issue for political purposes, refusing proposals for regular reunions and cancelling scheduled events at the last minute over some perceived slight.
After the last reunion, in February 2012, some South Korean participants complained that their Northern relatives had felt obliged to deliver lengthy political sermons parroting Pyongyang’s official propaganda.
Others said they seemed more interested in what gifts the South Koreans had brought than in talking about their family history or catching up with what had happened in the last 60 years.