Torn apart

South Korean and North Korean families briefly reunite in bittersweet meetings near border

89 elderly South Koreans crossed the border into North Korea on Monday for an emotional three-day reunion with family members from North Korea — the first time such a reunion had been allowed to take place in three years. One elderly South Korean woman, Lee Geum-seom, 92, refused to let go of the hand of her North Korean son, Ri Sang-chol, during a two-hour group reunion on Monday at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeast North Korea, South Korean journalists reported. Ri showed his mother a photograph of her deceased husband, who had stayed in North Korea, and Lee peppered her son with questions — such as whether he was married, and how many children he had. Seperated during the chaos of the Korean war, the mother and son had not seen each other — or even been permitted to communicate — in more than 65 years.

Since 1985, roughly 20,000 people have participated in off and on reunions that allow separated South Koreans and North Koreans the chance to finally see each other once more. Lee and the rest of the 89 South Korean participants in the meeting were chosen via a computerized lottery. North Korea is also slated to send a separate group of 83 North Koreans to the Diamond Mountain resort to meet with South Korean relatives on Friday, after they were chosen via an opaque process that experts say is likely based on their perceived loyalty to North Korea’s totalitarian regime. Despite repeated urging from South Korea to increase the number of such reunions, North Korea has resisted out of apparent concern that seeing the relative prosperity of their South Korean relatives could turn attendees against the regime. According to the New York Times, more than 75,200 South Koreans who have applied to attend the reunions have died without being permitted to do so. Those that do get to attend have to make it count — repeated reunions are not permitted.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Kim Hyun-sook, 90, shared what it was like to meet her North Korean daughter and granddaughter during the last round of reunions back in 2015.

“What they told me was shaped by the communist regime,” Kim recalled about the restrained dialogue. “It was hard to say goodbye. In fact, meeting them for that little moment made me miss them more ardently than before. I really wish I could see them once more while I am alive, but I can’t go to a reunion event again because I have already been once.”

Read the full story at The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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