SOKCHO, South Korea – Kim Kwang-ho was just 14 years old when his family was torn in two during the Korean War. It was December 1950, and Chinese troops advanced in his small hometown. With his father, two older brothers and an older sister, he fled first to the south, then on foot to a train and finally impossible in a transport ship.
His mother stayed behind with his 10-year-old brother and several cousins, expecting to accompany them later, when the fight was over, making the journey safer.
"It was a pretty happy goodbye," he said. "We thought we would only be separated for three days or a week."
It was the last time he saw or heard his mother, who, he found out, was dying in the Communist North of Korea, 1967. On Monday, more than 67 years after their separation, he finally returns to his younger one Brothers.
Kim is one of 172 South Koreans traveling to North Korea this week to meet relatives the reunification of divided families takes place for three years as relations between neighbors thaw.
These reunions are reminiscent of the deep bonds between the two nations and show how far apart they have grown over the decades since their painful division.
The reunion program began in 1985, was stalled and then started well around the turn of the millennium. In total, more than 17,000 South Koreans have participated in more than 20 meetings where they have seen their relatives in person or through a video connection. But since the program began, more than 130,000 people have joined divided families as members, and more than half of them died before they could see their relatives again. Many on the waiting list are over 90 years old.
Some barely recognize the relatives they meet.
Kim has vivid memories of life in North Korea: climbing an apricot tree in front of his house and sitting up there singing, looking over an apple orchard; He ran into the mountains as he heard the United Nations-led United Nations troops fly toward his rural town and explode their bombs, "Boom Boom Boom," in a line along the railroad tracks.
He remembers falling asleep on the train that had carried him towards the harbor of Hungnam. There was snow on his shoulders. But he can not remember his brother's face or even his mother.
Yet he says he is happy to be selected for reunion and looks forward to seeing his brother again. "My two older brothers who came south with me died in their sixties," he said. "My younger brother is 78 now, I'm surprised to see that he's still alive."