CHEONGJU, South Korea—The last time Koh Ho-jun saw his brother was six decades ago. Then 19 years old, his brother had high hopes for his future, wanting to pursue an education, but their family was poor and couldn’t afford it.
“North Koreans told him that he would be able to study however many years he wanted, and lead a wealthy life. That’s why he followed the North Koreans,” said Koh, 76, from his home in Cheongju in central South Korea.
“We never heard from him since then. It was during the Korean War.”
The war, between the North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, and the South, supported by the United States and other allies, divided the Korean Peninsula, leaving many families like Koh’s permanently split, as people in the North couldn’t freely leave the borders of the communist-ruled country.
Koh is hoping the renewed relations between the North and the South would make it possible for him to visit his relatives in the North frequently.
“In the future, I hope that more efforts are made for the separated families, so that we can come and go freely.”
The armed conflict, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, ended with an armistice, but no formal end to the war has been declared so far.
Although relations between the South and the North have recently warmed, thanks to renewed talks between the United States, South Korea, and North Korea, the Trump administration wants to see real progress on denuclearization in the North before considering an end-of-war declaration.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month, later tweeting that the two sides “continue to make progress on agreements made at Singapore summit.” During the summit, held in June, U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim signed a joint statement, agreeing to pursue peaceful relations and to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Koh only recently learned that his brother passed away in 1974 in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, from abdominal cancer at the age of 42. In August, Koh and his wife met his sister-in-law and her children in the North for the first time, due to a reunion event that the two Koreas occasionally organize for separated families. The last such reunion was held three years ago.
“I felt like as if I owned the world,” Koh explained, after seeing his relatives in the North for the first time. “While going to the meeting place, we could move fast through South Korea’s well-paved roads. In the North, it took time, as the roads were not well-paved. I couldn’t wait to see them.”
It was Koh’s nephew, 49, and his niece, 60, who recognized Koh once he arrived. “They said I looked just like their father.”
“My brother had five daughters and one son. He died when his youngest child, the son, was 5 years old,” Koh said. “My brother’s wife has had a hard life, raising the several children by herself. At 86, she’s very healthy, and raised the nephew and nieces very well. I am very grateful to her.”
Koh said he was told that his brother also often missed his family and hometown in the South.
“He saved money for our parents, but he could not give it to them and died early,” Koh said. “It was heartbreaking.”
A Family Split
Back home, Koh’s mother never gave up on the dream of one day seeing her son again.
“Whenever she prepared meals, my mother always prepared food for my brother using a separate kettle, waiting for him,” Koh said. “She would say, ‘The food is for your brother, so he can have a meal anytime he returns.'”
Koh had applied for the reunion program about a decade ago. His parents were hopeful that they could see their son again through the program, but they passed away a few years ago.
“They waited, but could not meet my brother.”
Koh says his mother came to him in a dream one night, just before he was told about the family reunion.
“My mother vividly appeared in my dream one night, putting a gold ring on my fourth finger.”
As of August, more 130,000 people in South Korea have applied to reconnect with their relatives in the North. Of those, only around 57,000 are still alive; 60 percent of them are over the age of 80.
Since 1985, when the family reunion initiatives first started, only 4,200 applicants have so far been reunited in the 21 events since then, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. The reunions could be years apart, depending on relations between the two Koreas; family members only get one chance to attend a reunion. Following the 1985 event, the next reunion wasn’t held until 2000.
Plans are in place for further North-South talks to evaluate initiatives, such as creating a reunion center that operates year-round, as well as video talk and video-message exchanges for separated family members.
“I only wish North and South Koreans can come and go [between the two sides] as soon as possible,” Koh said.