Families meet but remain divided

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Families meet but remain divided

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From left, Kim Hong-shik, Kim Cheol-ja and Han Gil-Jou met last week to prepare for their reunion with relatives in the North whom they have not seen for almost 60 years. By Ahn Yoon-soo

In April 2006 Lim Sun-ja, 71, received an unexpected phone call that brought her tears and joy. The call was from the National Red Cross, who told Ms. Lim that her sister, whom she had last seen in 1950, was alive. The septuagenarian has spent the previous 57 years believing that Lim Mal-sun, now 75, had been killed during the first year of the Korean war. Ms. Lim felt immense happiness, followed by deep despair as she thought about all the sorrowful years that she and her sister had spent apart.
“After receiving the phone call, I felt like I was up in the air. My mind went blank,” Ms. Lim said. “Then I cried, I cried a lot. Although I cried, I could not see my sister. She wouldn’t know how much I cried. She had a pretty face and a good heart, but we are very old now and I can only recognize my sister by her name.”
Ms. Lim will see her sister today, for the first time since they were teenagers. But there will be no warm embrace and they will not be able to dry each other’s tears, for their reunion will take place via video conferencing.
The governments of the North and South agreed on March 2 that selected families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War could meet, but only in this distant fashion. They will be able to talk, but they will still be separated by many kilometers, by barbed wire and armies, and by history.
The reunion was originally scheduled for August 2006, but it was canceled after the North test-fired missiles. Apart from Lim Sun-ja and her sister, 60 families are going to be reunited on this occasion. The video conferencing will occur at different places and times over three days and only five members of each family can attend. Ms. Lim’s session with her sister is scheduled to take place at the National Red Cross headquarters in the Jung district of central Seoul.
Ms. Lim was 15 years old when her sister was abducted. Her family had tried to flee when the war broke out, but they could not cross the Nakdong river and had to return home to Sangju, in North Gyeongsang province.
“We were digging a shelter at a nearby mountain to escape from the bombing, but the soil was so hard that we could barely dig down one foot,” Ms. Lim said. “Then North Korean soldiers came and said they needed my sister to wash their wheat for them. My mother said she would go instead, but they threatened us with bayonets and took my sister.” Mal-sun did not return. “My parents thought my sister had been killed and they died with broken hearts.”
At least Ms. Lim has a few fading memories of her sister. There are many families participating in the reunions who have little recollection of their relatives in North Korea, because they were too young at the moment of separation to remember much, and they have no photographs.
Kim Hong-shik, 69, and his sister, Kim Cheol-ja, 63, learned in January 2006 that their elder sister, Kim Wi-seok, 73, was alive in North Korea. Again the call came from the National Red Cross. Mr. Kim said he did not know that his sister was alive, let alone that she was living in North Korea.
“I was dazed after receiving the phone call,” Mr. Kim said.
In November 1950, when UN forces attacked the North Korean army in Seoul, Mr. Kim’s mother fled with his younger sister to Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang province. Mr. Kim’s father and sister have been missing since then. His sister Wi-seok was just 19 years old when she disappeared and he does not have much memory of her, because he last saw her when he was 10 years old, but he believes he will be able to recognize her.
“I remember she took me to see Wonhyo street, Yongsan district, when it was flooded with water,” he said. “My father and Wi-seok were in Mapo district, which came under heavy bombardment by UN forces. In the midst of the chaos, I don’t know what happened to them.”
Mr. Kim has a precious black and white photograph of his father. His relatives have told him that his father was a smart businessman who was fluent in both Korean and Japanese. Mr. Kim has a few photographs of his father and sister together, taken while the whole family was living in Japan.
Because he was not sure whether his father is alive, he has never reported him dead. “I am going to ask my sister whether my father is alive,” he said. Mr. Kim said his mother died three years after the war broke out. She had been desperate to see her husband again before her death.
Kim Cheol-ja said she has no memory of her elder sister. “Even though I don’t remember her, she would remember me,” she said. Mr. Kim said that when the two Koreas are unified he will go to see his sister in North Korea as often as possible.
Like Mr. Kim, Ahn Do-shik, 70, and Ahn Geum-sun, 67, have no memory of their elder brother, Ahn Jae-shik, 75. They have also been notified that their brother is alive in North Korea.
“I never thought that he was alive, or living in North Korea. I thought that he would have found us if he were alive,” Mr. Ahn said. “After the call I felt like I was dreaming. I couldn’t sleep.”
During the war, Mr. Ahn’s brother was drafted by the North Korean army when they occupied Seoul and he was assigned to a military construction team. The North Korean army called a town meeting and recruited every young man by force, he said. When his brother was stationed in Gumi, North Gyeongsang province, the city was besieged by UN forces.
“Someone who belonged to the same unit as my brother escaped from the North Korean army and later told us that there had been a huge bombing raid by the UN forces and it would have been difficult for my brother to survive,” said Mr. Ahn, who has no photographs to verify his brother’s identity. “If he says he is my brother, he is my brother,” he said.
Because he does not have much memory of his brother, Mr. Ahn does not know what he will say when he meets him at the video conference. “I’ll probably ask how he is and how many children he has,” he said. “But I still need to think about it. I’ll think of something when the moment arrives.”
Mr. Ahn said he has been instructed by the National Red Cross not to say anything offensive about North Korea or about its politics. At least one member from every family attended a one-hour instruction course last week, held at the National Red Cross headquarters. They were told not to bring up names like Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il or to ask about life in the North. The North Korean side has suddenly disconnected the video link in the past. They also learned some of the different vocabulary used in North Korea. Despite these obstacles, Mr. Ahn is grateful to have this opportunity. “I am still glad that I can meet him this way.”
The reunion is likely to be more emotional for those who have at least some memories of their relatives. “My sister was abducted at such a young age,” said Ms. Lim. “Her situation was so pitiful. She was alone and she probably had nobody to depend on. Thinking about how much she might have suffered, I feel like my bones are melting and my heart is breaking.”
Ms. Lim said that she has an elder sister and a younger brother in the South, but they are unwell and she will have to go to the reunion on her own.
“I don’t feel like going alone, but I know I have to,” Ms. Lim said.
She is also afraid that she and her sister will not be able to communicate because of differences in the vocabularies used in North and South Korea. And she is scared that the linguistic barrier could prove fatal.
“I feel troubled,” she said. “I am afraid that if I make a mistake with words, it might jeopardize my sister’s life in North Korea. I want to ask how she makes a living and how life has treated her. But I cannot, so I don’t know what to say.”


By Limb Jae-un Staff Writer [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]
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