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Home / World / In South Korea families are waiting with longing and fear for reunions with relatives from the north

In South Korea families are waiting with longing and fear for reunions with relatives from the north

Kim Kwang-ho poses for a photo at his home in Seoul on Saturday, two days before he goes to family reunion.

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."

The gifts Kim Kwang-ho has prepared for reuniting with his family in the north include clothing, cosmetics and Choco Pies. (19659014) He will come and bring gifts: some warm jackets, socks, soap and cosmetics for his brother's wife and two packages
Choco Pies, the sandwich made with cake and marshmallow chocolate in Korea, but especially sought after in the North

The participants are discouraged to bring cash, and he has decided not to, because he is worried that his brother probably would not keep it anyway. Luxury goods, including expensive bottles of spirits or watches, are also banned under US sanctions.

On Sunday, the South Koreans gathered in the city of Sokcho to learn how to behave and what they can not say before taking a bus across the border with the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang on Monday. Kim will have to stay in a hotel other than his brother in Mount Kumgang, but they will meet for group meetings, banquets, and luncheons between Monday and Wednesday, including a three-hour meeting on Tuesday to exchange gifts

The South is advised not to criticize the North Korean leadership or to ask about the country's economic situation if it causes problems for its relatives. And when their colleagues began to sing propaganda songs or make political statements – a common problem in the past – participants should "naturally focus the conversation on another topic." Gifts of a propagandistic nature should be politely rejected.

Nevertheless, Kim is looking forward to hearing from his mother and from how his hometown has changed. Then, on Wednesday, after only 11 hours together, he and his brother will be walking again, almost certainly for the last time.

The meetings are like a sudden spark of light after nearly seven decades of darkness. Many people have not heard anything about their relatives in the North during this time and are nervous about who and what they will encounter. And then, after the brief meeting, the darkness will reign.

"I really wish we could exchange letters or call each other or make a video call afterwards," Kim said, "but these meetings are a" just-time meeting. "

Yun Jung-sik applied to his older sister, whom he last saw when he was 12. She was already married, then with two small children, and when the rest of the family fled south, she remained with her husband's family. [19659021] Ten days ago Yun found out that he had been selected for family reunion for this round, but he also learned that his sister died 25 years ago.

Instead, he will meet her children, nephew and niece. He knows nothing about her except her name and age, 71 or 70.

"I feel pretty neutral, I'm not so excited," he said, "maybe if we'd exchanged photos in the last 70 years, maybe I would have been different

He and his wife each bring $ 260 in cash, as well as clothing – eight pieces for women, in different sizes and five for men – some vitamin pills and of course some chocolate cake.

"I hope the family we meet has not become Communist all the time," he said. "If they are completely indoctrinated, they will not tell us openly what their life is, I hope they are not."

Yun Jung-suk and his wife are posing for a photo in their home in Incheon, South Korea. (Min Joo Kim / The Washington Post)

There are good chances they will. Daily NK, a South Korean news service with contacts within the North, reported last week that only North Koreans believed to be loyal to the regime are being selected for reunification. That could exclude many people. North Koreans, whose relatives have fled to the South, were often considered suspicious and placed in the lowest layer of the country's highly stratified society, experts said

However, the Chosen have to undergo a month of political indoctrination Right, said Choe Eun-bum, who for many years brought together families shared on the Red Cross.

"One of the first things the North Koreans tell their South Korean relatives is their gratitude to their great leader." He said what immediately causes "a cooling off over the long-awaited reunion."

Kim, 14, sailed south on the SS Meredith Victory, a ship of the US Merchant Marine, nicknamed "Ship of Wonders" carrying 14,000 refugees on this trip, the largest land evacuation with a single ship.

Also on board were the parents of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In fact, Moon accompanied his mother to one of the meetings in 2004 to meet her younger sister, and says that his personal story shapes his own desire for peace.

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.

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