Seoul: As the husband she last saw 65 years ago hugged her, Lee Soon-kyu, an 85-year-old grandmother from South Korea, smiled shyly, like the young bride she once was.
Lee had been married to Oh In-se for only seven months and she was five months pregnant when the Korean War erupted in 1950. Oh disappeared into the conflict, ending up in the North when the war was halted three years later by a truce that left the Korean Peninsula divided.
The spouses did not see each other again until Oh, now a deeply wrinkled 83-year-old, showed up on Tuesday, wearing a black fedora as part of the first reunions of war-separated relatives the rival Koreas have arranged in nearly two years.
“I can’t tell how much I missed you,” said Lee, who never remarried and raised her son alone. “I have wept so much thinking of us that there are no tears left in me.” Oh, holding her hand, said, “My dear, I didn’t know that the war would do this to us.”
Lee and the couple’s son, Oh Jang-gyun, 64, were among 389 South Koreans who crossed the heavily armed border into the North in buses and ambulances on Tuesday to meet with 96 elderly North Koreans who wanted to reunite with long-lost relatives for perhaps the only time.
“Come, sit close to me,” Oh said to his wife, gesturing towards a table in a crowded ballroom at the Kumgang mountain resort just over the northern side of the line that has arbitrarily divided the Koreas for generations.
Oh sat between his wife and his son, Oh Jang-kyun, who was wearing a black hat almost identical to his father’s.
“Thank you for being alive,” Lee, who was wearing a traditional Korean dress and had her long grey hair back in a bun, told her husband. She had stayed living in their house and had never remarried, hoping her husband would one day return.
She had brought him a simple gold watch, which she had engraved with each of their names. “Watches were precious in the past in the countryside,” Lee said as she put it on his wrist. “I’ve always regretted not being able to give [you] a watch.”
Oh, the son, told reporters here before he left for the reunion that he was looking forward to being able to say “Father” for the first time in his life.
“Father,” he shouted at the sight of the old man, before bowing deeply, as is Korean custom, and hugging his father. “I’ve always tried to live as a proud son of yours,” he said, crying.
Their time was to be painfully brief. They were granted permission to be together for only 12 hours, in group and private sessions, until Thursday, when they will have to part again. On Thursday, an additional 90 elderly South Koreans will cross the border for another round of three-day reunions with 188 relatives in the North.
Foreign media were not allowed into the reunions, but a pool of domestic reporters brought footage back here to the Southern side of the border. It showed heart-wrenching scenes of sisters clutching at their brothers, a son bursting into tears introducing himself to his father, nephews kneeling on the floor to bow to uncles.
These families were divided when the supposedly temporary division of the peninsula was made permanent with the 1950-53 Korean War, which cemented the North in the communist orbit, while the South was allied with the US and embraced capitalism with vigour.
The reunions, at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea, are a rare but highly emotional glimpse at the pain the long political divide on the peninsula has inflicted on families separated by the war. For more than six decades, they have been forbidden to exchange letters, phone calls or emails, much less to meet.
South Korea has repeatedly called for more reunions, which are widely viewed as a barometer of relations. But given the fluctuating political tensions on the peninsula, only 18,800 Koreans have been allowed to participate in 19 face-to-face reunions since 1985, when the first gatherings were held.
The disparities between life in the developed South and the impoverished North were on stark display at the gathering. The North Koreans looked far older than their Southern peers, their faces more wrinkled and leathery, and many of them were entirely toothless.
Koo Sang-yun was the oldest South Korean at the event at 98. He took two pairs of red traditional shoes for his two daughters, Sung-ja and Sun-ok, who are now 71 and 68 years old, respectively. They were seven and four when they were separated from their father in September 1950, a few months after the war began.
When they were children, Koo had promised his daughters new shoes. Almost seven decades later, he was making good on that promise.
New York Times, Washington Post