IMJINGAK, South Korea: On the frozen banks of the Imjin river, South Koreans divided from their families decades ago by war gathered Saturday to pay respects to their ancestors.
Mostly elderly men—according to tradition, Korean ceremonies for the lunar new year must be carried out by the eldest son—they lined up before an altar piled with offerings of rice cakes, fruit and fish.
Shoeless despite the bitter cold, they each placed a flower on the stone, poured an offering of soju—rice wine—and burned incense before prostrating themselves twice, forehead to the floor, and bowing deeply.
Some walked away in tears.
Kim Young-Ki, 80, came to Imjingak to pay respects to his grandfather, who is buried in his hometown of Kaesong, just north of the border.
Kim fled the city, along with his six siblings, parents and grandmother when South Korean and UN troops retreated in the face of a Chinese offensive in 1951.
“Whenever national holidays come around, I am haunted by the memory of my old home,” he told Agence France-Presse.
“I myself shut and locked the gate door,” he said. “If I were put in Kaesong I would be able to find it quite easily. All the roads and back alleys are so vivid in my memory.”
Others held ceremonies of their own to pray for their relatives near the fence at Imjingak, 53 kilometers (33 miles) north of Seoul.
It lies just short of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has marked the border since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Millions of family members were separated by the conflict, and most have since died without ever seeing or hearing from their relatives on the other side in the absence of civilian cross-border post and telephone communications.
A series of carefully managed reunions were held in past years, but with relatively few participants, and the last of them was in October 2015.
Relations between the two sides have since worsened as the North stepped up the nuclear and missile programs that have seen it subjected to heightened United Nations sanctions.
A few meters away from the site of Saturday’s ceremony, the rusting hulk of a steam engine stood where it came under attack in 1950.
Pock-marked with the holes of 1,020 bullets, a panel describes it as “a symbol of the tragic history of the division into North and South Korea.” AFP