In an attempt to garner better relations with its southern neighbor, Kim Jon-un, the leader of North Korea, has allowed 58 families to meet for family reunions. Eighty-two South Koreans left by bus to meet with 120 North Koreans at Diamond Mountain, a resort town in North Korea where the event will take place. Many of the people participating in event are in their eighties and nineties and have not seen each other in over sixty years. There are no direct communications between the two countries that still remain in a state of war since signing a 1953 armistice.
Millions of Koreans were separated at the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Some fled to escape the northern invasion. Thousands of North Koreans held as prisoners of war refused repatriation after the armistice. South Korean soldiers and civilians captured by North Korea were forced to stay in the north.
The 58 families will hold their family reunions under the watchful eyes of North Korean officials from February 20th to the 25th. More than a dozen participants attending the event traveled in wheelchairs and two by ambulance.
South Korean Lee Du-young was among those selected to travel by bus to Diamond Mountain. The last time he saw his brother was at the outbreak of the Korean War when North Korean forces entered Du-yong’s village and drafted his oldest brother into their army. Du-young believed his sibling had died during the war. Not only did he survive, but Du-young’s brother contacted him through the Red Cross.
Knowing that it is colder in the north, Du-young purchased a winter coat and thermal underwear to bring as gifts. He also plans on bringing chocolate biscuits known as Choco Pies. Smaller than a moon pie with a marshmallow center, Choco Pies are very popular in both North and South Korea. Du-young also plans on bringing medicines, another commodity North Koreans have problems attaining within their isolated country that is ruled by a communist elite.
Jang Chun was eight years old when he last saw his brother. Taken prisoner as a North Korean conscript during the fighting, Chun refused repatriation and remained in South Korea. Four years ago, he received a letter and several black and white photographs through the Red Cross showing his brother’s wedding, an event Chun could not attend. “Whenever I miss my family, I read this letter,” Chun said.
With the start of joint U.S. – South Korean army and navy exercises on Monday, there was a fear that North Korean officials would cancel the family reunions at the last minute as they have done in the past. The two Koreas still remain in a state of war to this day and have only signed an armistice to end the fighting. The United States maintains a military presence of 28,500 troops in South Korea.
The 58 Korean families enjoying this weekend’s family reunion have been on a waiting list for years. A much larger group of 72,000 South Koreans want their own family reunions with relatives in the north. Nearly half on the waiting list are over eighty. Those selected for the reunions are told not to speak of defecting or politics. North Korean Kim Jon-un rules a country that a recent United Nations report condemned as being similar to Nazi Germany. For the 58 families who have not seen each other in decades, they will at least have one final family reunion and a chance to catch up on old times.
By Brian T. Yates