SEOUL: Deep-rooted feelings of guilt and regret have permeated Kim Se-Rin’s long life, but he hopes to excise them this week at an emotional, all-too-brief reunion with relatives he left behind in North Korea.
Among tens of thousands of wait-listed applicants, the 85-year-old is one of just 83 South Koreans who will participate in a meeting beginning Thursday of family members divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.
It’s the first such reunion for more than three years and was only confirmed after intense negotiation spurred by North Korean fury at overlapping South Korea-US military drills.
For Kim, who had been selected for a reunion last September that was cancelled by Pyongyang at the last minute, the doubt surrounding this week’s event have been a source of great stress and anxiety.
But he is now so excited about the prospect of meeting his 80-year-old sister and the 52-year-old son of his late brother that he can barely sleep.
“I’m so nervous, I worry I might collapse if I actually see my sister, but at least I can die without regret,” he told AFP in an interview at his daughter’s home in a western suburb of Seoul.
“Anyway, this is really my last chance,” said Kim, whose health has declined in recent years due to a kidney ailment.
The first son of an affluent farming family in the North Korean county of Hwangju, Kim left his hometown in December 1950 at the height of the Korean War to join the South Korean army.
He went without telling his parents, his brother or his two sisters.
“My life-long regret has been that I left home without saying a word to my family,” he said.
In the six decades since, he has had zero contact with those he left behind, not knowing whether they were alive or dead.
Like many who crossed to the South, he has often fretted over his family’s well-being, especially because, as landowners, they would have been likely targets for class struggle.
The fate of those who fall foul of the Pyongyang regime was thrown into the international spotlight Monday with the publication of a UN-mandated report built on harrowing testimony of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and forced abortions in North Korea.
Kim had been on the South’s reunion wait-list for 20 years before his name came up in a computer-generated lottery for last year’s cancelled reunion.
It was only when Kim was selected that he discovered for the first time that one sister was the only survivor of his immediate family.
“I wasn’t sure if I would meet any of them before my death, so I am very thrilled to see my sister now,” he said.
“I understand her position, and I intend to avoid any political conversation,” he said.
Kim married after the war, and one of his two daughters will travel with him to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort where the reunion will take place.
As of Monday, his luggage was already packed and ready, as was $100 dollars in US bills that he intends to slip his sister, despite warnings not to hand over money or valuables.
Message to dead parents
Another thing he will give his sister is a message he wants her to carry to the graves of their parents.
“I want her to tell them that I am living well in South Korea,” he said, adding that he needed to express his regret for not fulfilling his duties as a son.
In the event of Korean re-unification, Kim said he had also left express instructions for his children and grandchildren to visit his parents’ grave and “convey my words.”
He was an elementary school teacher when he left his hometown and served as a South Korean army officer for nine years from 1951.
He became a local council official and eventually retired in 1987.
Millions of Koreans were separated by the conflict and permanent division of the peninsula.
Of the 125,000 South Koreans who have applied for reunions since 1988, 57,000 have died and time is rapidly running out for those on the wait list.
Initially, 95 were chosen for the cancelled September reunion. Since then one has died, and 10 more are now too infirm to travel.
The first reunions in 1985 coincided with a short-lived thaw in North-South relations and were discontinued for the next 15 years.
A historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 saw the program resumed in earnest and an estimated 21,700 people have been reunited since then.
But they were suspended again in 2010 following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island.
The meetings are intensely emotional affairs with many of the participants breaking down and sobbing as they cling to each other.
The joy of reunion is tempered by the pain of the inevitable—and this time permanent—separation at the end.
“This is the most precious thing I will give to my sister,” Kim said tearfully, holding a small photo album of his own family’s pictures—a record of the life he built on his decision to leave.