Korean families reunite decades after being separated by war | WBEZ
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Korean families reunite decades after being separated by war

One of the consequences of the 1950 Korean War was separation.

Thousands of Koreans ended up on different sides of the border. "[Some] fled North Korea during the war," says reporter Jason Strother, "others were living in North Korea and it became South Korean territory once the fighting stopped."

Strother adds that some of these Koreans haven't seen each other for some 65 years. This is the second time in the past five years that the reunions have taken place. There have been about 20 rounds of reunions in the past 15 years.

Park Jong-hwan, 80, who is selected as a participant for a reunion, poses for a photograph with an old picture at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, October 19, 2015.
Park Jong-hwan, 80, who is selected as a participant for a reunion, poses for a photograph with an old picture at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, October 19, 2015.

Park Jong-hwan, 80, who is selected as a participant for a reunion, poses for a photograph with an old picture at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, October 19, 2015.

Credit:

REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The South Korean Red Cross along with its North Korean counterpart organize the event. All of the face-to-face reunions that have taken place in the past 15 years happen in North Korea.

A foreign journalist, Strother was not allowed to go to North Korea in person, but he watched the South Korean coverage of the event.

"It's people collapsing in front of lost loved ones, children in front of their parents, even men and women who were married to each other before the Korean War, who are finally seeing each other again," he says.

Speaking with some of them, Strother found out about the restrictions that the two countries impose on what the families can talk about in their meeting. The Red Cross, which organizes the event, hands participants a guidebook that outlined the topics of conversation. "[It explains] what he can say and what he can not say," he says. 

For example, if the North Koreans begin to praise their leaders and repeat the propaganda lines, Strother says, the South Koreans have been instructed to change the topic. The reunions take place over the course of three days. Strother explains that the families don't stay in the same hotels but they have several public and private encounters.

"From what I understand they're not always with a minder," he says.

As emotional as these meetings can be for some, for others, they're disappointing. 'There was a woman in the last round of reunions in 2014 and [she] said that her family just wouldn't stop praising Kim Jong-Un and it was very disappointing for her," he says.

Still, for all the restrictions imposed on the participants and the challenges facing them in making connections, for many, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Especially since many of them are in their late 80s or 90s.

One man Strother spoke to appreciates the opportunity.

"He said it will be just good enough if he can stare into the faces of his sisters for one last time," he says.


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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