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Korean Families Torn by Border, Heart



North and South Korea are planning reunions for 200 family members. These families were forced apart after the two nations were created 70 years ago at the end of World War II. But with news of a possible North Korean missile test, politics could get in the way.

Activists have appealed to both countries to put aside political differences on the family reunions. Shim Gu-seop is with the Inter-Korean Separated Family Association. She says, “When it comes to the reunions of the separated families, we actually have to think of this as a basic human right.”

Irregular contact

The reunion program has reconnected only a few of the 60,000 or more divided families. Official family reunions began 15 years ago. The program was suspended 10 years later, after North Korea fired artillery shells at a South Korean border island.

The most recent reunions took place in 2014.

A new film documentary features the reunions. Its filmmakers hope the two Koreas will pay more attention to the issue. The documentary shows how thousands of people were forced to leave their families during the Korean War. These men and women have since been unable to return home, even for a visit, because of the tensions between the two countries.

The South Korean broadcaster TVN produced the documentary. The producers spoke with more than 100 separated family members. Most of them are now 70 to 80 years old. Because North Korea restricts travel and most communication with foreigners, many have not been in contact with their families since they were teenagers. The documentary shows the emotional pain they still feel.

Lee Sang-rock, a TVN producer, said the main message of the documentary is the value of family. He said, “The key message that we wanted to deliver through this program is the value of family, putting aside political issues or policy-related issues.”

Political edge

Lee Chang-ju took part in an official family reunion last year. During the Korean War, she came south to escape the fighting. After the war she could not return home. She has not had any contact with her family since.

Ms. Lee is now 80 years old. For her, the reunion was bittersweet. Before the event, she found out her brother and sister had already died. But at the reunion site she met -- for the first time -- her two nephews who live in the North. They told her about her family back home.

Contrary to my expectations the family members in North Korea were having a good life, and I thought it was very good and I found a lot of comfort in them,” she said.

South Korea looks at the joint family reunions as trust-building exercises. It says the reunions may help lead to more contacts and even future Korean unification.

North Korea has not permitted the reunions as freely as South Korea. It has used them for propaganda purposes.

Lee Chang-ju said she sensed that her nephews could not be honest during her reunion. She said they urged her to make a public statement praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for enabling the reunion to take place.

“There were a lot of journalists from North Korea who were trying to take photos of me saying ‘hooray’ or writing some thank you note to the North Korean leader, but I didn’t respond,” she said.

In the past, activists organized inter-Korean family contacts and unofficial reunions mostly in China, near the North Korean border. However, increased security has made that more difficult.

The TVN documentary notes how China and Taiwan, and even formerly divided Germany, were able to organize family visits, even at times of heightened tensions. But in Korea, reunions remain a highly political issue.

I’m Jim Tedder.

VOA’s Brian Padden reported on this story from South Korea, with contributions by Youmi Kim in Seoul. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reunion – n. an organized gathering of people who have not been together for a long time

basic – adj. relating to the most important or easiest part

teenagers – n. someone between the ages of 13 and 19 years

deliver – v. to take to a person or place

bittersweet – adj. something combining sadness and happiness

contrary – n. the opposite of something

comfort – v. to make someone feel less worried or frightened

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