[Viewpoint] Hope, death and family reunions

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[Viewpoint] Hope, death and family reunions

‘44,444.” It is a number that Koreans won’t feel comfortable with. Koreans are superstitious about the number four because it is a homonym for “death” in Korean, and 44,444 repeats death five times.

What is this number? It may be a coincidence, but the number actually is related to death. Of the 128,129 former North Koreans who had registered with the Ministry of Unification’s Separated Family Information Center for family reunions, 44,444 had died as of late last month. As of now, 83,685 are alive, but 4,666 are over 90 years old. Of the survivors, 29,323 are aged between 80 to 89, while 30,613 are between 70 to 79.

Time is of the essence. No one lives forever, and eventually the remaining 83,685 will follow those that have already perished. I am confident that the former North Koreans who died before meeting their separated families went through the five stages of grief twice. In her book “Death and Dying,” psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the five stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Because they died before being reacquainted with their families in the North, they probably went through the five stages one more time. They probably denied the cruel reality of their separation, believing that they would be reacquainted with their loved ones before their deaths. But after they accepted the reality of never seeing their loved ones again in person, they would apply with the Unification Ministry’s Separated Family Information Center in the hopes they would be selected to attend a reunion.

But after a long waiting period, they would again fall into a bout of depression for allowing themselves to have such hope. Then they would accept their situation.

During the Chuseok holidays, I visited my family and relatives, just like most other Koreans. Both of my parents’ hometowns are in North Korea. My father is 91 years old and mother is 82. Other relatives who came to the South from the North are all in their 80s. All of them had registered to be selected for the reunion events years ago, but they have all given up hope, because the odds are so slim.

The two Koreas’ Red Cross officials held working-level talks in Kaesong on Friday to discuss a resumption of the separated family reunions. During last week’s meeting, the North proposed that 100 each from the two Koreas meet next month.

For argument’s sake, let us say that the reunions take place, as the North has insisted.

The South will select 300 people through a computer draw, check their health conditions and intentions to attend the reunion. The North will then be informed of the result and Pyongyang will verify the whereabouts of the South Koreans’ counterparts.

The final selection of 100 will then be made. Roughly, the chances of becoming one of the 300 selected is one in 279. A few days ago, Unification Vice Minister Um Jong-sik said, “Even if 1,000 attend the reunion every year, it will take 66 years for the separated families who are over 70 years old to meet their loved ones.” That is not an exaggeration.

During Chuseok, separated family reunions became a topic of conversation. My parents and relatives reacted cynically and bitterly. “Even if I get selected and meet with my family, I will probably feel disturbed after meeting them,” one said. “What’s up with the reunion, when the North did not apologize for the Cheonan’s sinking? It is another act of deception by North Korea,” another said.

One of my relatives described in detail about the experience of neighbors, who were lucky enough to attend a reunion a few years ago.

“They met with their son in the North. The son was wearing a suit that probably was borrowed because the fit was so off. Although he claimed that he was living well, his hands were so rough. The son repeatedly praised Dear Leader and General [Kim Jong-il], but could not really answer questions about other relatives in the hometown. Sometime after the reunion, a letter arrived through a middleman in China.

“The son asked for thousands of dollars. My neighbors were not rich, and they were also afraid that the son would face punishments if they did not give the money. They wished that the reunion never took place.”

My family and relatives concluded that it would probably be easier on their hearts to not know about how their separated families in the North were doing until their loved ones die.

But I was able to detect a glimpse of hope from their words. I logged into the Internet site of the Separated Family Center yesterday and checked on my father’s application form. On top of the list of his family members in the North, my grandfather’s name was placed on top. The record showed that he was born in 1890. For a moment, I was at a loss about what to do.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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