SEOUL: 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.
On the third and last day of their all-too brief, emotionally charged reunion in a North Korean mountain resort, the families were given a final two hours in the morning to say their goodbyes.
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.
“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.
Among the South Korean generation that actually experienced the division, the vast majority died without ever having any contact with their relatives in the North — and, in many cases, without knowing if they were even alive.
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 to 23 back in 2010.
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 hometown in the South, prompting everyone else at their table to burst into tears.
The departure from the resort marked the end of the first stage of the six-day reunion with another group of families from both sides scheduled to meet from Saturday to Tuesday.
In a reflection of the stark economic divide between the two Koreas, all the South Korean families had brought gift packages, including winter clothing, watches, cosmetics and — in most cases — several thousand US dollars in cash.
South Korean officials had warned in advance that a substantial slice of any money handed over would be “appropriated” by the authorities in the North.