Tears of joy turn to regret as reunions come to close
“Father!” sobbed Lee Jeong-suk, a 68-year-old woman from the South. “Father, I was told that our meeting is now over!” In the furnace of emotions generated over the previous days, Lee had not registered that Thursday morning was to be their last time together.
Starting on Tuesday, Lee was inseparable from her father, who had been plucked from her life by the 1950-53 Korean War. She recorded him singing his favorite songs on a camcorder at a dinner feast the previous night so that she would never forget his voice.
On Thursday morning, the group of 530 North and South Koreans from 96 families had a final two hours together, part of the mere 12 hours allotted to them in total over the course of three days.
As Lee gave her father a deep bow of farewell, 88-year-old Ri Heung-jong told his snowy-haired daughter, “You have to live undaunted and keep a strong heart.”
When it was time for Ri to head to his bus going North, Lee took out two identical checkered handkerchiefs and gave one to Ri. “This handkerchief is split between father and me,” she said. “So please treasure it.”
The North Korean men and women squeezed hands through the small sliding windows of their buses and waved frantically as they departed.
Their South Korean relatives pressed against the sides of the departing buses, sobbing and calling out final farewells.
Ri, too, squeezed his daughter’s hand tightly through the crack of the window, and she desperately grasped his fingers - probably their final contact.
As the bus departed down the mountain road, Lee lamented, “I was first able to call out the word ‘father’ over the age of 60.” Then, she repeated it out one last time into thin air.
The 389 South Koreans who had arrived at the scenic mountains, humming in anticipation, departed in dozens of buses back to Sokcho, Gangwon, in the South, this time heavy hearted.
They knew they would most likely never see their relatives in the North again.
Previous reunion participants have suffered from restlessness, disappointment and difficulties proceeding with their lives after the reunions concluded.
The Korean Red Cross conducted a survey of 230 South Korean participants in the 19th family reunions in March 2014, checking on their health and mental state. A good 44 percent of respondents said it was difficult for them after the reunions.
The main issue was the idea that they would never see their loved ones again, which 63 people described. But 20 admitted that they were disappointed because of the difference in ideology and thought between themselves and their relatives in the North.
Nearly 30 percent of the respondents replied that they felt let down or yearning to the point that it was difficult to get through their daily lives.
And 83 people said that they felt “frustrated” after the reunions.
Twenty even replied: “It would have been better to have never met.”
The top reasons for the difficulties after the reunions include worries for their family in the North, followed by insomnia due to missing them so much.
Respondents reported that they stared at the pictures of their relatives in the North all the time and that sometimes, they appeared in dreams.
On Saturday, a second group of some 255 South Koreans and 188 North Koreans from 90 families will go to Mount Kumgang for a second round of reunions.
North Korean Oh In-se, 83, was separated from his then-pregnant wife in June 1950, and this reunion was a whirlwind of joy and sorrow.
He was able to meet his wife, Lee Sun-kyu, who is two years his senior, their son, whom he never saw until three days ago, and his son’s wife. All three live in North Chungcheong Province.
The 65-year-old son, Oh Jang-kyun, placed his hand on his father’s heart. “Live on with your son, your daughter-in-law and my mother embedded in here,” he said.
Oh embraced his wife, son and daughter-in-law with both arms. “Hugging like this is happiness,” he said. “It is the first time in my life.”
Oh’s eyes were red-rimmed, and his wife gently chided him. “Why do you keep crying?” she asked. “I am happy. Be healthy - there’s nothing else I ask.”
His son’s last request to his father in the North was, “Please remember!”
BY SARAH KIM, JOINT PRESS CORPS [firstname.lastname@example.org]