Joy and anger as families meet after 50 years

In Seoul and Pyongyang, husbands and wives, mothers, fathers and children are reunited for the first time since the war
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Soon after the event began, as more and more wailing could be heard across the hall in Seoul, one scene caught the attention - a man and a woman, elderly like almost everyone there, facing one another with expressions of intense emotion.

Soon after the event began, as more and more wailing could be heard across the hall in Seoul, one scene caught the attention - a man and a woman, elderly like almost everyone there, facing one another with expressions of intense emotion.

The woman was Paek Bok Hwa, one of hundreds of South Koreans who gathered at a hotel in Seoul yesterday for the biggest reunion between citizens of the capitalist South and communist North. After 50 years of separation on opposite sides of the world's last Cold War border, 200 elderly people in all were reunited with their families in simultaneous events on both sides of the border.

Ms Paek had been waiting more than an hour. The man was her brother, Paek Gi Taek, whom she last saw in 1950 as an 18-year-old and who had arrived that morning from North Korea. He stretched out his hands and his sister grasped his shoulders but what began as an embrace turned into something close to assault.

"Your sister went to look for you," screamed Ms Paek, grasping his arms and face and pulling him to the floor. "You don't know how long she's been looking for you; she climbed mountains and crossed rivers ... but couldn't find you. Mother was so happy to have you - you were her only son. She was always looking for you, even in her dreams - when she died, she didn't even close her eyes. How could you, how could you? Go and tell her to close her eyes."

A Red Cross worker lifted the two from the ground and it could be seen that Mr Paek had scratches on his face.

The organisers of the event spoke of it as a happy occasion made possible by the dramatically improving relations between North and South. But yesterday it was difficult to tell the joy from the grief.

The emotional scenes began at 11am, when a Russian-made airliner became the first North Korean commercial plane to land in the South.

One elderly woman, immaculately dressed in the national costume, was carried out on a stretcher after meeting her son from the North. For a good hour the sounds in the hall in the Seoul hotel were cries and sobs rather than laughter.

The simultaneous three-day reunions began yesterday after the aircraft flew 100 people from Pyongyang to Seoul and picked up 100 there to take North in exchange.

And each one had a story of epic suffering, loss and survival. There was Kim Ok Bae, 62, a dancer in Seoul when the North Koreans seized it in their first lightning invasion in June 1950.

She was taken away by them to perform for the troops. In the North she became the most famous dancer, gymnast and choreographer. Her sister said: "We thought she was dead. We removed her name from the family register."

One elderly South Korean died of cancer on Sunday, two days before he was due to meet his long-lost brother.

Every table in the hall had its photo albums showing dead parents, brothers and children. "I'm not dead, I'm not dead - I was alive all this time," said Kang Young Won, 66. "Where's my little sister?" But his little sister died decades ago.

Then there were those in perhaps the most painful and awkward position - husbands who had become separated from wives, many of them to remarry in their new country without any divorce proceedings. Choi Pil Soon, 77, met his 49-year-old daughter for the first time. His wife was pregnant when he set out for the North, leaving "because I couldn't bear any more of this colonialism".

Even at moments of most intense emotion there was no forgetting why these people had been apart for so long - politics, and rivalry between the capitalist South and Stalinist North. Silent men in suits with badges of North Korea's founding "Great Leader", Kim Il Sung, hovered and listened to conversations. At their approach, Madam Kim, the dancer, delivered paeans to his son, Kim Jong Il.

A 66-year-old man said to his 91-year-old father: "My father, I am seeing your face for the first time in 50 years. Our Dear General, Kim Jong Il, sent me here to let me see you before you die." But why the Dear General had waited so long, and why he required the son to return at the end of three days, the man did not try to explain.

Comments