South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North

Aug 19, 2018
Originally published on August 20, 2018 1:54 pm

Editor's note: This report includes some graphic descriptions of injuries and dead bodies.

In August 1950, 14-year-old Ahn Seung-choon was still asleep at home early one morning when her mother woke her up, screaming that her 17-year-old brother had been taken by North Korean soldiers.

"Someone took your brother, and you are still sleeping!" Ahn recalls her mother shouting. Her mother had tried to chase the boy and his abductors, but she had babies to take care of at home and couldn't follow them for long.

"After that day, we didn't hear anything about him," Ahn says 68 years later in Suwon, a city south of the capital Seoul.

The summer of 1950 marked the start of a brutal three years for Ahn, now 82, and millions of other Koreans caught up in a war that involved the U.S., China and the United Nations. The Cold War conflict left more than 3 million Koreans dead, wounded or missing.

Amid fighting, Ahn and her family fled their village near Pyeongchang; she was wounded in a bombing as she and her mother and siblings crossed a mountain pass.

"In the evening, I came to my senses, smelling shells and blood and bleeding from my own body. I went around looking for my mom, calling her," she recalls. She saw bodies everywhere, covered in blood. "Then I saw a baby crying on the back of a body that was missing a head. I went closer and saw it was my baby sister on my mom's body."

"I should go see him before I die"

Ahn, who survived the war along with an 11-year-old sister, went on to marry and have six children. She never stopped wondering what had happened to her brother. Some 30 years ago, she went to her county office in Jecheon, southeast of the capital Seoul, and put her name on a list of other Koreans wanting a chance for rare, short-term family reunions granted intermittently since 1985.

Of 132,000 South Koreans who registered with the government since 1988, some 57,000 are still alive, hoping to meet their long-lost loved ones before it's too late. No more than 100 South Koreans are given the opportunity to take part in each reunion. There have been only 20 reunions since 1985, the last of which took place in October 2015.

Now, with relations improving between North and South Korea in recent months, the two sides are reviving the cross-border reunions. Ninety-three South Koreans will board buses on Monday to meet their long-lost loved ones in Mt. Geumgang, North Korea.

As the decades passed, Ahn pretty much forgot about her own request — until she got a phone call earlier this month. She'd been chosen in the lottery to visit her brother in the North.

She was thrilled. But two days later, Ahn got another call. Her brother, it turned out, had already died. But he had left a family, and his wife and son were willing to meet.

"It hurts to know that my brother has died. It makes me sad I will never be able to see him now," she says.

But she's decided to go ahead with the trip anyway.

"I should see my nephew. I should go see him before I die. My brother's son would be the only son in the fourth consecutive generation of our family," Ahn says. She has five sons of her own, but believes family line can only be continued from father to son. "He is my father's descendant and will carry on my father's lineage," she says. "So I'm thankful for that."

"Like asking for the moon"

In a neighborhood near the Seoul National Cemetery, Yoon Heung-gyu, an energetic 92-year-old calligrapher, bounces around his basement studio, proudly showing off his karaoke machine and disco light. Like Ahn, he will be traveling north this weekend. He'll see relatives he left behind in Chongju, which he fled in 1948, before the war began.

"When the Communist government came in, it seized our house. My family was rich and had a big house, but they kicked us out, put us in a small hut," he says. "At the young age of 22, I hated the Communist Party. So I fled by night, alone."

Yoon left behind his mother and a younger brother and sister. He traveled light.

"I had to flee with nothing, not even a picture," he says. "If you get caught with something like that, it gives away that you are escaping to the South."

He says his mother begged him not to go, but both were sure that they'd see each other again soon. Only three years had passed since the country was divided along the 38th Parallel. Like many Koreans, they didn't think the division would last. That was 70 years ago.

"If I had known that my family would remain separated for this long, I would not have crossed the border," he says.

Yoon married, joined the South Korean army as a military policeman and fought against the Communists during the war, all the time wondering what had become of his mother and his siblings. He registered for the reunion program almost 20 years ago, then pretty much gave up — until he got a phone call earlier this month to come meet his younger sister.

"I wasn't expecting it to happen," he says. "There are still more than 50,000 people waiting to meet their families. How could I be selected as one of 90-something people going this time? It was like asking for the moon," he says.

He knows his mother died in 1973. He doesn't know what happened to his brother, but hopes his sister might have answers. He's also hoping his sister brings pictures showing the family together — and that he can keep his composure when they meet.

"I will have to see if I cry or not," he says. "I will only find out when the moment comes. Meeting siblings is different from meeting my mother and father. If my mother and father were alive and I could see them, I would burst into tears."

He is frustrated at having waited so long. "It would be good if more people can go meet their families," he says. "But North Korea is worried that its regime might collapse if more people from this liberal country contact more people living under the dictatorship. That's why they're reluctant to hold more reunions."

"I thought it was a miracle that he's still alive"

Kim Gwang-ho, 80, will also be meeting family this week. He also wants more reunions — quickly, he says.

"One of the South Koreans going over this time is over 100 years old, I hear. How much longer will they live?" he asks. "Over 50 percent of them are in their 80s or older. If reunions don't happen fast, they will never be able to meet their families."

Kim, a retired professor of medicine, will be meeting his younger brother, whom he left behind in the northernmost Hamgyong province in 1950, when he fled with his father and his older siblings. Like Yoon, he didn't say goodbye or bring any family photos with him. He thought he was just leaving for a few days, that the South Korean army would beat back the North, and then everything would return to normal.

"Of course I regret it now," he says, "but everyone around us said there was no need to go through the trouble of moving the entire family, including the little children, since we would return shortly after. So only the five of us who were big and healthy enough to move fled."

He and his brothers eventually built lives in the South as doctors and businessmen. They didn't talk about the mother and brother they left behind.

"Even when we gathered together, we didn't bring that up," he says. "I think everyone just kept it in their minds because it's not a happy memory ... so everyone just held it in."

But Kim did add his name to the registry, hoping to find answers. When he got the call that he'd be traveling to meet his younger brother this week, "I was surprised and very happy," Kim says. "What was especially surprising was how could he reach the age of 78 in North Korea? The older brothers I came to the South with all died before they turned 60. So I thought it was a miracle that he's still alive there."

Kim says he and his brother will have too much to catch up on in too little time — they'll be allowed to meet for just three days. He hopes they'll have more opportunities in the future. The recent thaw in relations between the two Koreas could hasten that process, but he's seen thaws before followed by chills. He says there's no way he'll waste time talking politics with his brother — even if it were allowed.

After living for 68 years in the South, Kim says, "There's a saying, 'Home is where you open your heart to.' I live in Seoul. Seoul is my home." The South Korean capital is where he got married and raised three children.

Kim's brother, just 11 when they parted, has since married as well. On Monday, Kim will get to meet his sister-in-law too. Kim says he hopes, but isn't sure, he'll recognize his brother after all this time.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for this weekend's Long Listen - imagine living for nearly 70 years knowing your mom, dad, maybe brothers and sisters live just a few hours away across the most heavily fortified border in the world. Tensions are easing between North and South Korea. And the two sides are reviving cross-border reunions that have been on again, off again since 1985. NPR's Michael Sullivan brings us this look from Seoul at the latest reunifications. And I'll note it contains a brief but gruesome wartime memory.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The parking lot at South Korea's war museum is usually pretty empty but not this past Wednesday, National Liberation Day - a state holiday - when thousands flocked to the museum to learn about a brutal war that left nearly 3 million dead, wounded or missing in just three years.

SHING CHANG-MIN: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: Twenty-six-year-old Shing Chang-min came here with his girlfriend to learn about the history of the war. He says he doesn't know much about it - just a little from textbooks at school. What about your parents or grandparents? - I ask.

SHING: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: "I only see my grandparents briefly during holidays. And then we only discuss family issues," he says. "To be honest, I just realized I've never thought to ask them."

Eighty-two-year-old Ahn Seung-choon isn't family. But she could tell them plenty. She's one of the lucky ones who got the call to meet her brother in the North on Monday. Her memories of the war are vivid and awful and start with her mother screaming at her one early morning in August 1950 that her 17-year-old brother had just been taken by North Korean soldiers.

AHN SEUNG-CHOON: (Through interpreter) There were babies sleeping in the house, so she could not follow them for long and had to come back home. After that day, we didn't hear anything about my brother.

SULLIVAN: It got worse. The fighting that first winter was fierce - the family forced to flee to a relative's village, only to be forced out again. So they decided to go back home, hoping the fighting had ended there.

AHN: (Through interpreter) On the way back to our house, there was a mountain pass called Paektu (ph) in Pyongyang. And that's where the bombing started.

SULLIVAN: And kept going, she says, until, grazed by a bullet, she passed out.

AHN: (Through interpreter) In the evening, I woke up. All I smelled was shells and blood. I went around looking for my mom. But bodies were everywhere. And a mixture of snow, ice and human blood was flowing into a gutter. Then I saw a baby crying on the back of a body that was missing a head. I went closer and saw it was my baby sister on my mom's body.

SULLIVAN: She and her 11-year-old sister strapped their younger siblings to their backs and trekked for days before making it back to their village. The babies didn't survive. Ahn and her sister did - Ahn married, had six kids but always wondered what happened to her brother. Thirty years ago, she put her name on the list of people looking for their families then forgot about it until she got a phone call earlier this month saying she'd been chosen to meet her missing brother, only to get another call two days later saying he'd already died but had left the family.

AHN: (Through interpreter) It hurts to know that my brother has died. It makes me sad. I will never be able to see him now. But he left a son. And his wife is still alive.

SULLIVAN: And it's them she'll meet on Monday.

AHN: (Through interpreter) I should see my nephew before I die. He is my father's descendant. And he'll carry on my father's lineage. So I'm thankful for that.

YOON HEUNG-GYU: (Through interpreter) My name is Yoon Heung-gyu. I am 92 years old, and I'm a calligraphy teacher.

SULLIVAN: Yoon left his home in the North just before the war started. He was angry at the communists for seizing his family's home and moving them into a small hut. I hated them, he says.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I left the North with nothing. If you got caught with anything on you, you're doomed. You couldn't have anything that could be evidence, not even a picture.

SULLIVAN: His mother didn't want him to go. But they both believed the country would soon be reunited.

YOON: (Through interpreter) If I had known that the country would remain separated for this long, I would not have crossed the border.

SULLIVAN: He made his way south, made a life, served in the South Korean army and got married, all the time wondering what had become of his mother and his two younger siblings. Like Ahn Seung-choon, he registered for the reunion program decades ago, then pretty much gave up until he got the phone call.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I wasn't expecting it to happen. There are still more than 50,000 people waiting to meet their families. And how could I be selected as one of those going this time? It was like asking for the moon.

SULLIVAN: He hopes his sister will bring pictures of the family he hasn't seen for 70 years. He hopes he can keep it together, too, when they meet.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I will have to see if I cry or not. I would only find out when the moment comes.

KIM GWANG-HO: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: Kim Gwang-ho, 82, left his home in the North with four brothers in December 1950 in what was known as the January 4 retreat. They left behind his mother and a younger brother. He didn't say goodbye.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Of course, I regret it now. But everyone around us said there was no need to move the entire family since we would return shortly.

SULLIVAN: Kim settled in the South, became a doctor but never stopped wondering about his mother and the brother he left behind. He, too, applied years ago for the reunion program. And he, too, had pretty much forgotten about it until he got the call earlier this month.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I was surprised and happy. But especially surprising was that my 78-year-old brother is still alive. How could he reach the age of 78 in North Korea? The brothers I came to the South with all died before they turned 60. So I thought it was a miracle that he's still alive.

SULLIVAN: He says they have too much to talk about and too little time in the two days allowed but hopes there will be more opportunities in the future not just for him but for all those who've applied who aren't getting any younger.

KIM: (Through interpreter) One of the South Koreans going is over 100 years old - over 50 percent them in their 80s or older. If reunions don't happen faster, they will never be able to meet their families.

SULLIVAN: Kim hopes the thaw in relations between the two Koreas will hasten that process but says he's seen thaws followed by chills before. He says he has no intention of talking politics with his brother, even if it were allowed. There's too much to catch up on, he says. But I hope he brings pictures. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.