Hello from the other side: South Koreans recount awkward reunions with families from the North

Cho Kwon-hyeong, who participated in the latest round of reunions, reads a document in Suwon, South Korea, August 28, 2018 in this still image obtained from video. Photo: Reuters

There were no tearful hugs when 81-year-old South Korean Jung Hak-soon met her North Korean nephew and sister-in-law for the first time. Instead, she says, she just wanted to return home.

“It was like I met someone I don’t know at all,” said Jung, who was among 89 South Korean families who joined in reunions last week of relatives separated by the Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953.

“I wish my nephew resembled my brother, but he did not. They were like strangers,” she said, days after the event held in North Korea’s tourist resort of Mount Kumgang.

“I don’t want to meet them again. I don’t know how other separated families felt, or maybe I am just cold-hearted.”

While many wept and embraced loved ones they were meeting for the first time in more than six decades, others, such as Jung, couldn’t connect at all with their Northern relatives.

The disconnect shows how far apart the neighbours have grown in the decades since they ended hostilities in a truce rather than a peace treaty, leaving them technically in a state of war.

As war survivors on both sides age and in some cases, die, nearly half of those attending the events from August 20 to 26 met for the first time distant relatives such as grandchildren or nephews, rather than children or immediate siblings.

The long separation brought not only emotional distance but a difference in political outlook.

For example, South Korean Cho Kwon-hyeong said he became uncomfortable at hearing praise of the North Korean leadership from the wife of his nephew living in the North. “They said this meeting could happen thanks to Kim Jong Un,” the 80-year-old added. “There were no other words except that.”

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed at a summit in April to resume the reunion events after a gap of three years.

Those attending from the North are believed to have been chosen on the basis of their loyalty to the regime. In the South, participants are picked by computer, weighing factors such as their age.

The most important news Cho gleaned during the interaction was that his brother had died.

“I hadn’t heard from him since he was taken by the North Korean military during the Korean war,” he added. “I didn’t even know if he was alive or not.”

It is a shame the neighbours have so many families who die without ever learning if relatives across the border survived, said the South’s Moon, who himself comes from such a divided family.

More than 75,000, or nearly 57%, of the 132,484 South Koreans who signed up since 1988 hoping to reunite with families have already died, a government registry shows.

 
 
 
 
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