SEOUL, South Korea—This weekend, scores of Koreans on both sides of the border are holding reunions with family members divided by the Korean War some six decades ago. Most have not seen each other since then—and may never again.
This is the second three-day session of reunions organized by the two countries held at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea.
South Korean Lee Cheon-wu, a 78-year-old retired farmer, was at the first session, held during the middle of the week. Here, in his own words, is what he will remember about what will likely be his last meeting with his 84-year-old sister, North Korean Ri Mun Wu:
When the North Korean participants came into the reunion center, I quickly recognized my elder sister because she looks exactly like our late mother. I quickly shouted, “Sister!” and rushed over and embraced her. She asked me “Who are you?” So I said, “It’s me. Cheon-wu!” She wept and hugged me.
They look so much alike, it really feels like I reunited with my mother, who died 24 years ago.
She was 12 and I was 6 when she was sent to North Korea in 1943, before the war, so we didn’t share many stories about the good old days. We just talked about how we’ve lived in the years since. She had a big misunderstanding about our parents so I tried to resolve that, but it didn’t work.
My parents sent her to a relative’s house in Hamhung in North Korea because they couldn’t financially take care of all their children at the time. They planned to get her later, but they couldn’t because the Korean War broke out in 1950.
My sister said a relative there told her that our parents had sold her, so the new family forced her to do all the housework like dish-washing and rice-cooking. I repeatedly told her that our parents didn’t sell her and that they tried to get her back when the situation got better but she wouldn’t believe it.
I learned she was alive about eight years ago when an ethnic Korean Chinese visited me and said my sister was looking for me. We exchanged letters and photos through this broker, who told me they could bring her to a certain place in China to arrange a meeting with her if I came to China with 2 million won ($1,770). But I didn’t do it because I worried they might be trying to swindle me. This week, I took the two letters they said my sister wrote and asked her if she’d really written them. She’s now suffering Alzheimer’s disease and she couldn’t remember. But I came to believe they were her letters after talking with her.
I brought two suitcases full of medicine, pain killers, medicated patches, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, long underwear, a coat, a parka and pants. When I asked her to put on some of the clothes, I found she was wearing three thin long johns. I told her I’m not wearing any long johns and she was really surprised. She’s 84 so she’s old and thin and more sensitive to cold.
Her Alzheimer’s, age and a hearing problem meant that we wouldn’t have been able to reunite if this happened two or three years later.
I also gave her $500, and she gave us three bottles of liquor and some cookies. She said she was sorry for not giving me more even though I gave her many presents.
“Please, don’t say that,” I said. “I didn’t come here to get presents from you. You probably didn’t come for the presents either.”
“You were smart when you were a little boy and you’re still smart,” she said.