This past Tuesday, October 20th, 389 South Koreans, together with the South Korean Red Cross, journeyed up to Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea to reunite with family members they had not seen in over 60 years (New York Times). Tears were shed and memories rekindled, often through old family photos taken before the Korean Civil War broke out in 1950. Pictures weren’t the only things South Korean participants brought with them; they also supplied their North Korean relatives with practical supplies like underwear and medicine, caring for them as if no time had passed at all.
The most popular human interest story that came out of this event was that of Lee Soon-kyu and her husband Oh In-se. Mr. Oh, now 83 years old, held hands with his 85 year old wife and lamented that when he left to engage in the conflict in North Korea, he had no idea that the country would become permanently divided and he would never be able to return. Oh Jang-gyun, the 64 year old son of Ms. Lee and Mr. Oh, had the opportunity to meet his father for the first time ever since Ms. Lee was only 5 months pregnant when the war began.
Unfortunately not all families get even this brief opportunity for reunion. Since 1985, when the first reunion was held, there have been only 19 rounds of these gatherings in which only 18,800 Koreans have participated. South Korea selects the family members it sends through a lottery system. And the odds are not in their favor. The waiting list for the lottery has on it 66,000 South Koreans and out of that bunch, more than half are 80 years old or above. The likelihood of most of them getting to reunite with their loved ones in their lifetime is slim considering that these face-to-face reunions take place only when relations between the two governments are at least partially thawed, a situation that is not too common.
Nonetheless, there is a small spark of hope in these long-awaited family reunions. They remind us that human ties go beyond the barriers that state lines impose. It’s not the flags that fly over our heads that make us human beings but rather the amazing propensity we all have for growth, love, and change. You can see the love written all over the faces of participants from both halves of the peninsula.