Mementos of Korea's Divided Families

Mementos of Korea's Divided Families


The 1950-53 Korean War left many families stranded on opposite sides of the North-South border. Many were parted forever, some were able to see their relatives again very briefly at a few specially organised family reunions.

The latest reunion was held last month. Photographer Kim Hong-Ji talked to some of those who felt the joy of seeing their families again after over 60 years apart as well as the pain of saying goodbye once more – probably forever.

. SEOUL, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Kang Neung-hwan was a participant in the latest reunion for families divided by the Korean War.

The ninety-three-year-old said that during the war he was separated from his wife, just four months after they were married and without him knowing at the time that she was pregnant.

Kang said he later heard that his wife and parents passed away in North Korea. He met his son for the first time at the reunion.

. SEOUL, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“I had never seen my son, but the first time I saw him at the reunions I immediately knew who he was. I was heartbroken,” said Kang, pictured holding a photograph of the two of them together.

“I believe that one day the two Koreas will reunify. My son, please stay healthy and wait for me until that day comes. Let us meet again soon."

. SEOUL, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Eighty-year-old Kim Sun-yeon also took part in the latest family reunion, which was held on February 20-25.

Kim said that during the war, when her family left their hometown to seek refuge, her big sister went missing.

At the recent family reunion she met her sister’s son, but she was unable to meet her sister again, who died a few months earlier.

. SEOUL, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

"The North Korean People's Army killed a lot of people during the war, so I thought my sister died as well. But last year when I registered for the family reunions, I found out that she was alive,” said Kim, pictured holding her sister’s photograph.

“If the reunions had taken place last year in September like they were supposed to, I could've met my sister. But the reunions were postponed to this February and my sister died in the past few months. I have so many things I want to tell her but I can't anymore."

. NAMYANGJU, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Jang Choon, 82, was also a participant in the latest reunion.

He said he fought during the war for the North Korean People’s Army but he became a prisoner of war in the South, where he chose to stay.

He said that his brothers and sisters received a note saying that he had died in the war.

“They were holding ancestral rituals for me,” said Jang. “Words cannot express how happy I was to meet them again in 60 years."

. NAMYANGJU, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Jang holds out an old picture of his youngest brother Jang Ha-choon.

The 82-year-old said that the last words he shared with his family during the reunion were: "Please stay healthy until the day we meet again. Let us meet again to talk more. Please stay alive for a long, long time."

He said that then they sang a song called "Spring in My Hometown" and cried before parting ways.

. YONGIN, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Kim Myeong-do, 92, likewise took part in the February 2014 reunions.

He said that he used to be an elementary school teacher in North Korea but he came to Seoul when he was 21 to go to college. After the war broke out, he had to settle down in the South and was separated from his family.

. YONGIN, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Kim holds a picture taken during the reunion with his younger brother.

He said the last words he shared with his family were: "Someday the two Koreas will reunify. This [division] won't last forever.”

“I don't know when but shouldn't the Koreans live together as one people? Isn't that the only hope we can look to as we live on?"

"He thought the two Koreas would reunify two or three years after their split, but over 70 years went by before he saw the land of his birth again."
Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters Photographer

Last month North and South Korea allowed a group of families divided by the Korean War to come together for a brief reunion. Separated on either side of the border between North and South, it was the first time they had seen each other in more than six decades.

Those who took part in the reunion knew that they were luckier than many others, who didn’t get to see their loved ones across the border at all. But they still had to go through the pain of parting all over again – more than likely forever – after their brief, tearful meeting.

I wasn’t allowed to cover the families at the scene of the reunion. But the event made me wonder what it was like for those who returned to a normal life in South Korea after emotional gatherings with their long-lost parents, kids, and siblings from the North.

Some of the families who took part even thought their relatives had died in the 1950-53 war until they got their invitation to join the reunion. What did the reunited families talk about? Did they recognise each other with grey hair and wrinkles? What were the last words they said to each other before their goodbyes?

Wanting to know the answers to these questions, I obtained a list of participants in the latest reunions and began calling dozens of them. It was harder than I had imagined to arrange the interviews. I thought at first the families would be happy to talk in front of the camera. But after fulfilling a life-long dream of seeing their relatives in the North again, I found that many of these elderly Koreans appeared exhausted, and their emotions were spent.

Some critics say that the reunion program works too slowly and involves too few families. Many elderly people on both sides die before they can reconnect with loved ones, critics say. North Korea recently rebuffed the South’s offer to hold talks to discuss arranging more reunions between divided families.

Since the first reunion in 1985, over 18,000 North and South Korean family members have met at some 19 reunions. Of the 128,000 people in South Korea who are registered as being from families separated by the Korean War, nearly half of them have already died and over 80 percent of the survivors are over 70 years old, according to the South Korean government.

Eventually, I managed to set up interviews with ten people who returned from the latest reunions. They said the event was heavily controlled, and they were only allowed to spend 11 hours with their relatives over 4 days.

South Koreans were told before the event that there were some questions they must not ask their families from the North, which is technically still at war with the South. The North Koreans all brought the same gifts for their relatives: three bottles of North Korean liquor and a tablecloth, which appeared to have been provided by the government, not by themselves.

On March 4, I met Kim Sun-yeon, an 80-year-old woman who got separated from her older sister and saw her mother killed by artillery shrapnel during the war. At the reunions, Kim was reunited with her North Korean nephew, instead of her sister, who had died late last year.

Kim said if the North had not scrapped planned reunions last September just days before they were due to go ahead, her sister would have been alive and could have come to meet her.

“I have so many things I want to tell her but I can’t anymore,” Kim said with tears.

On March 9, I travelled east of Seoul to meet 82-year-old Jeon Ho-yeon. He left his home in North Korea in 1942, when he was just 12 years old, to study in Seoul.

He thought the two Koreas would reunify two or three years after their split, but over 70 years went by before he saw the land of his birth again. His relatives have all died except for one younger brother in the North.

The Korean Red Cross, the reunions’ organiser, told him not to ask how well his brother’s family was doing in North Korea, Jung said. He regretted that he couldn’t ask how much his parents missed him or how his brother’s life has been.

On March 11, I interviewed Choi Jung-sook, 84, who lives in a city called Namyangju in suburbs of Seoul. She started to talk even before I asked her questions.

“I want to meet my sister again. I want to go again. Or at least I hope I can call her,” Choi told me. I had to choke back my tears to continue with the interview.

Her one hope was now that she knows her sister is alive, she can send her letters.

A wave of tears kept 87-year-old Heo Gyeong-ok from talking during the reunions. “I just touched my sister’s hands and cried so we couldn’t talk that much. I should have brought some notebooks to write down questions I wanted to ask. Now I wish I could buy her a warm jacket and good cosmetics,” Heo told me.

“I wanted to ask, is our old house still left there as it was in our town?” Heo said, when I asked her what she regretted not having said when she saw her family again.

I don’t know when this elderly woman will be able to ask her relatives this question. No one does.

Their reunion was just another reminder that the emotional scars left by hostilities between the two Koreas still hurt.

. SEOUL, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Heo Gyeong-ok, 87, holds a polaroid picture taken during the reunion with her younger sister.