KOREA — “Sang Chol!” 92-year-old Lee Keum-seom exclaimed, as she fell into her long lost son’s arms at a holiday resort in North Korea Monday.
Lee had been waiting 68 years for this moment, after the two became separated during the Korean War and became trapped either side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which now splits the two Koreas.
Sang Chol was four when she last saw him. He is now 71, himself an old man. On Monday he sat waiting for Lee’s arrival with his daughter-in-law. Lee was joined by her two daughters, who grew up in South Korea.
Theirs’ was one of multiple emotional family reunions taking place at a resort near Mount Kumgang, where buses full of South Koreans drove early Monday.
They were the 89 lucky families selected from the more than 57,000 who had applied for the reunions, agreed to under the Panmunjom Declaration signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an historic summit earlier this year.
More than 60 percent of those seeking reunions are over 80 years old, and are being accompanied on the bus trip north by their children and other relatives.
After the initial tearful reunion was over, Sang Chol showed his mother a photo of her husband, who had been with their son when the couple became separated but has since died.
“This is a photo of my father, mom,” Sang Chol said, dissolving into sobs.
Before she left for the bus trip north on Monday, Lee told CNN she had prayed for her son to have a long life so the pair could reunite.
“(My family) in North Korea didn’t live long so I prayed for my son’s health,” she said.
She felt nervous about meeting her now elderly son, after only knowing him as a small child, unsure about where to start catching up on a lifetime spent apart.
“What shall I ask?” she said. “Oh, I should ask him what his father told him about me. His father must have told him about how we got separated and where our house used to be. I should ask him about that.”
On seeing him however, there was no hesitation, and the two elderly Koreans embraced each other tightly, both in tears. During the whole reunion, they did not let go of each others’ hands.
Long awaited reunions
Lee was one of dozens of South Koreans who gathered Sunday at the Hanwha resort hotel, in Sokcho, south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas, where medical checks were carried out and participants were warned about nuances of visiting North Korea. They’re told to avoid saying anything that could be misconstrued, or considered insensitive north of the border.
Participants were applauded by Red Cross workers as they arrived, some in wheelchairs, passing under banners reading “We sincerely congratulate the reunions of the separated families!”
In the hotel there was an air of excitement and tension as they prepared to meet husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and children who are now only vague memories, their faces blurred by time.
They then registered their names and were invited to take a professional family photo in a corner of the lobby. It was then framed for them so they could then take it to North Korea as a gift.
Park Kyung-seo, president of the South Korean Red Cross, told CNN that while he was overjoyed to be assisting in family reunions, the small number of those taking part was a “human tragedy.”
“I share fully with the disappointment of those who are not selected so I am trying with North Korean partners to try and find other solutions, huge numbers are waiting, the numbers are very much limited,” he said.
“Imagine 73 years long without knowing whether their family members are still alive or passed away — no news at all. The agony and anger, that’s an unthinkable human tragedy.”
In a statement Monday, President Moon urged both Koreas to work towards more reunions in future, noting his own family history as the child of North Korean refugees.
“Expanding and expediting the reunion has the utmost priority out of all the humanitarian projects that both Koreas must conduct. The Koreas must more boldly make an effort towards solving the divided families issue,” he said. “As a member of a divided family myself, I sympathize deeply with that sadness and pain. There really is no time”
Ahn Seung-chun was headed to North Korea to see family members she’s never met. “I applied to see my older brother,” he said. “But he passed so I’ll never see him now.”
“I’m going to see my nephew and my brother’s wife,” she added. On one hand, I’m sad that I won’t see my brother. But on the other hand, I’m happy to meet the nephew. At least I will be meeting a fruit of my father.”
In the decades since the Korean War, the Red Cross has reunited many families but thousands of others have missed out.
As family members age, each delay adds to fears that they’ll no longer be around to finally meet with their long lost relatives. More than 75,000 applicants have already passed away since the reunion process began.
One protester attended Sunday’s event to voice his elderly father’s case for a reunion, after the man was unlucky this round.
“I don’t know when he will die. He is beginning to show signs of dementia. Before he loses everything, he wants to go too,” Kim Seong-jin said. “But all he can do is to watch through television each time and get hurt.”
Amid all the joy and happy scenes on both sides of the border this week, this is the reality for most whose families remain split by the Korean War.
“My father is all alone here in the South. Can you imagine how much he misses his family?” Kim said. “He wants to hear the news of his hometown before he dies.”
Legacy of war
The pain felt by the families split by the Korean War is one of the most visible legacies of the conflict which, 68 years after it began, still hasn’t technically ended.
An armistice agreement which paused fighting in 1953 never became a formal peace treaty, and small skirmishes have happened since on either side of the heavily fortified DMZ, even as North Korea has built up its nuclear armaments and the US has maintained a heavy military presence in the South.
Officially ending the war was a key element of the Panmunjom Declaration, and both North and South have said they are continuing to work towards that goal, even as negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington appear to have stalled.
North Korean state media called on the US to agree to an official end to the war last week, saying it was a “preliminary and essential process to pave the ground for detente and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
“The U.S. should implement phased and simultaneous measures, like the end-of-war declaration, to build mutual trust and make a breakthrough in the security of the world,” state media Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary.
As well as the family reunions, Saturday saw the fulfillment of another commitment made by Moon and Kim, as a joint Korean team marched in the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.
That move came after a unified Korean team took part in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea earlier this year, negotiations over which helped kick start a breakthrough in North-South relations and lead to the current detente on the Peninsula.