North and South Korean families divided by war for more than 60 years said a final, traumatic farewell Thursday after a reunion event that, for most, marked the last time they will ever see each other.
Some spent the time simply clinging to each other, while others sought to put a brave face on their imminent departure, holding hands and wiping away tears as they sat at numbered tables in the resort’s main banquet area.
One elderly North Korean woman kept the mood on her table upbeat, challenging everyone to an arm wrestle to show off her physical health.
It was only the second such event to be held in the past five years, and interaction was tightly controlled — limited to six, two-hour sessions, including meetings in a communal hall and private one-on-one time without TV cameras.
For the nearly 400 South Koreans and their 140 relatives taking part, the 12 hours of total face time was heartbreakingly short after more than six decades of separation caused by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Too little time
“It would have been wonderful if we could have talked and slept in the same room, instead of just meeting on and off,” said 70-year-old Han Sun-Kyu who was meeting his North Korean aunt.
“And I wish we could have eaten meals just as a family, instead of in the big hall with everybody else,” he added.
For all the restrictions, the participants were the lucky ones, chosen from among the tens of thousands on waiting lists for a rare reunion spot.
Millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the Korean conflict, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.
With the mortality rate of reunion candidates increasing with every passing year, many accept they may never be selected and have resorted instead to taping video messages — and providing DNA samples — that might allow for some posthumous contact in the future.
The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and the demographic of those taking part has shifted significantly in the intervening 15 years.
This time around, there were only five families in which spouses or parents and children were reunited — compared with 23 back in 2010.
A song to remember
At a communal dinner on Wednesday evening, Lee Jeong-Sook, 68, asked her North Korean father, 88-year-old Ri Hong-Jong, to sing a song so that she would remember his voice.
He responded with a popular song about the river close to his home town in the South, prompting everyone else at their table to burst into tears.
“Stay healthy! Live long!” 85-year-old Lee Sun-kyu told her ex-husband Oh In-se, who lives in the North, as she boarded the bus for South.
Park Yong-hwan, 75, from the South carried his 82-year-old sister on his back just before leaving Mount Kumgang.
“You carried me on your back when I was young. Now, it’s my turn,” Park said, amid tears.
“Why don’t you come to Seoul with us for a couple of days? I can send a car if necessary,” he said before boarding the bus.
He burst into tears when his nephew told him such a visit would be possible only if the two Koreas were united.
A total of 530 people from 96 families, including 141 North Koreans, hugged their relatives and burst into tears as they parted.
Another group of 90 families is awaiting their respective reunions scheduled from Saturday to Monday at the scenic mountain resort.
Pyongyang said the first round of family reunions this week reflected its will to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In their Aug. 25 accord, Seoul and Pyongyang had agreed to hold inter-Korean family reunions to defuse military tension and bolster bilateral dialogue.