Korea’s Family Reunions—A New Beginning?

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA

IT WAS called a great human drama. It attracted over 1,300 domestic reporters and over 400 foreign correspondents. The event was the reuniting of families from the northern and southern parts of Korea—families that have been separated for some 50 years.

For a half century, many Koreans have had no contact with their relatives—by letter, fax, or phone. The demilitarized zone dividing the land has kept family members isolated from one another. What made this reunion possible? *

A Significant Reunion

On August 15, 2000, an airplane displaying the flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea touched down at the Republic of Korea’s Kimpo International Airport. The plane carried passengers from the north who had received evidence through the International Red Cross that some of their relatives were still alive in the south. This same aircraft then picked up 100 Koreans from the south and headed north, making it possible for them to meet their relatives. Imagine having a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, or a marriage mate whom you have not seen for over 50 years! Many who came for this reunion were in their late 60’s and 70’s, and they had not seen their relatives since they were teenagers!

These visits were arranged to last only four days and three nights, after which all would have to return to their respective countries. No doubt this is why many reunited family  members talked nearly nonstop! Because of the likelihood of trauma and shock, doctors, nurses, and ambulances were at the ready. Not surprisingly, these had to be utilized.

The reunions involved only a very small fraction of the total number of separated families. Some estimate that there are 690,000 people over 60 years of age and 260,000 over 70 years of age, who are still separated from loved ones. However, out of 76,000 from the Republic of Korea who met certain requirements and applied to visit their relatives in the north, only 100 were selected for this reunion.

Among these was 82-year-old Yang Jin-yeul. He received notice through the Red Cross that Yang Won-yeul, his 70-year-old brother in the north, was looking for his relatives in the south. Yang Jin-yeul’s younger brother had been a student at a university in Seoul in 1950 when he disappeared during the Korean War. Nothing had been heard from him since then. The two of them, along with their two sisters, were reunited after five decades of separation!

Lee Pok-yon, 73 years old, was reunited with his 70-year-old wife and two sons. He had last seen his family when the sons were only two and five years of age. During the war he had left home one day saying that he was going out to buy a bicycle. He disappeared and had not been heard from since. At their emotional reunion, his wife, now ill with palsy and diabetes, got to ask the question she had pondered for decades: Why had it taken him so long to buy that bicycle?

Lee Chong-pil, 69 years old, was a middle-school student when he became separated from his family in 1950 and was registered as missing. He was reunited with Cho Won-ho, his 99-year-old mother, two brothers, and two sisters in the south. Unfortunately, his aged mother was not able to recognize him.

These are only a few of the many touching reunions that took place. The event was carried live on several TV stations locally and abroad. Watching these reunions, viewers were also moved to tears of joy! Many wondered if this would lead to more. At any rate, the reunions soon came to an end, this parting proving to be almost as painful as the original separation. Loved ones did not know if or when they would ever meet again.

A Half Century of Separation—Near an End?

On August 15, 1945, Korea threw off the yoke of 36 years of Japanese colonial rule. However, Korea was soon to be divided by the politics of the day. By ousting the Japanese from the Korean peninsula, the American forces gained control of the territory south of the 38th parallel, and the Soviet forces controlled the territory to the north. The war that soon erupted failed to resolve matters. Now there were two governments in Korea. From 1945 onward and throughout the Korean  War, thousands of families were separated. When the war finally ended in 1953, a demilitarized zone laced with land mines now carved the country in two.

For decades, there were few signs of reconciliation. However, on June 13, 2000, a plane carrying the president of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae-jung, landed at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport. The head of state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-il, was on the tarmac waiting to greet him. A sudden and unexpected door of hope seemed to be opening. Never before had these two leaders met. But on this occasion they acted like long-lost brothers. A three-day summit ensued wherein the two leaders pledged to work toward ending the half century of animosity and to work for reconciliation. The reunions of separated family members were among the first results of that summit. Other initiatives were soon in the making.

The two leaders also came to an accord on reconnecting the railroad between the north and the south. There are seven miles [12 km] of rail in the southern part of Korea and five miles [8 km] in the northern part that are to be repaired by September 2001. This railroad will cut through the demarcation line, once again linking the two parts of Korea. And when the railroad is eventually connected to the Trans Chinese Railroad, it will extend from the Korean peninsula through China and on to Europe. It will truly be, in the words of President Kim Dae-jung, “a new silk road of iron.” Another rail line will eventually cut through the middle of the demarcation line and connect to the Russian Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Whether these initiatives truly herald a new beginning remains to be seen. In the meantime, the efforts to reunite families are commendable. Even so, it is evident that mankind needs global rulership by God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 6:9, 10) As early as 1912, Jehovah’s Witnesses began organizing the spreading of this message of hope in the Orient. Many in the northern part of the Korean peninsula got to hear it, and a number embraced it. Scores of these, however, were imprisoned during Japanese rule because of their refusal to go to war.

After the end of World War II and their release from prison, these Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, began to associate together. Most of them came south where they could enjoy freedom of worship. In June of 1949, the first congregation was formed in Seoul, and today that has grown into a great organization of over 87,000 active Witnesses in the Republic of Korea. Among these are thousands who are also separated from their relatives in the north.

Perhaps events will unfold in a way that will allow for the reuniting of all separated families in Korea. More important, an end to this separation may make it possible for the 22 million inhabitants of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea finally to have an opportunity to hear the Bible’s message.

[Footnote]

^ par. 4 A government-sponsored reunion also took place in 1985.

[Pictures on page 13]

A husband and wife (top) and a mother and son (bottom) are reunited

[Picture on page 14]

Practicing ancestor worship, a man bows down to a portrait of his father, who died before they could be reunited

[Picture on page 15]

Yang Jin-yeul (far left) is reunited with his brother (middle) from the north

[Picture Credit Line on page 13]

Pictures on pages 13-15: The Korea Press Photojournalists Association