War and politics keep families apart for half a century

Divided Korea: First the superpowers now dogma prevent any contact between North and South
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The Independent Online
FIFTY-one years ago, Cho Dong Young left his home in the town of Sinuiju to study at university in the Korean capital, Seoul. It was 1947, the northern half of Korea was in an edgy state, and he was glad to get away. "I felt a lot of dislike for the communists, and I didn't like the fact that the Americans and Russians had divided Korea along the 38th parallel," says Mr Cho. "I guessed that unification was going to be difficult, since neither of the superpowers really seemed to want it. But I thought that I would be able to go back any time I wanted to."

Mr Cho left his parents and five brothers and sisters behind - he expected to see them again in a couple of years at the most. But, 51 years later, Mr Cho is still trying to make the 210-mile journey between Seoul and Sinuiju. Apart from a brother, who escaped to the South a few years later, he has never seen any of his family, never received a letter or a telephone call. He assumes that both his parents are dead, and his youngest sister must now be 64, if she survived the Korean War and the famine presently believed to be ravaging the North. Mr Cho is 76, and he knows that time is running out.

In the 53 years since the end of the Second World War, the division of Korea has become such an established fact of international relations that it is easy to forget how cruel and arbitrary it is. Ethnically, culturally and linguistically, Koreans are one people and until the end of the war their country had been unified for a thousand years.

In 1945, in what should have been a joyous moment of liberation from the Japanese, they found themselves divided first along the 38th parallel and, after the 1950-53 Korean War, along an irregular line close to it.

In the chaos before the Korean War, some 10 million people - about 5 million from each side - found themselves separated from their families, a hangover of the Second World War. "Other countries were divided, but our case is unique," says Mr Cho, who now heads the Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten Million Separated Families. "Germany was divided, but there were still exchanges between families. Korea is the last country on earth where even letters cannot be sent between the two parts."

At the root of the problem is the intense, fratricidal bitterness between the governments of the North and South, one run by doctrinaire communists, the other by American-backed capitalists and both of them in the last few years victims of stinging economic problems. Successive Korean leaders have promised to sort out the problem. The latest of them was Kim Dae Jung, the former dissident and now president of South Korea, who has referred repeatedly to the problem. "Numerous members of separated families have grown old and are passing away," he said during his inaugural address. "We must let those ones separated from their families in the North and South meet and communicate with one another as soon as possible."

The separation of families is especially painful in a Confucian culture like Korea's in which reverence for ancestors and the tending of family graves are the solemn duty of the living.

In 1989, Mr Cho travelled to China, to the town of Dandoing which faces Sinuiju across the Yalu River. He took a boat, and got within a few yards of his old home. He waved at the people on the river side and some of them waved back, but they didn't answer his shouts. "It's during the holidays, when people spend time with their families, or tend the graves of their parents - that's when I feel the pain the most. And that time in the river, 10 yards away from my home town - no one else could feel how I felt then."