Dozens of South Korean families crossed the border into North Korea to reunite with relatives, some of which they haven’t seen in nearly seven decades. This was the first family reunion to take place in three years, but many of these people hadn’t seen each other since the war began about 70 years ago.
Many people couldn’t even recognize each other but that didn’t stop them from being excited about such a rare opportunity. The Washington Post quoted an 88-year-old man as saying, “I haven’t slept a wink since being selected for this family reunion.” He was one of the lucky few selected for a chance to meet his sister.
The Chicago Tribune reports that before this week’s reunions, about 20,000 people had participated in reunions since the year 2000. There were another 3,700 people that had been allowed to exchange video messages with family members in North Korea, but none of those people have had another chance to openly communicate with their loved ones.
South Korea believes the separation of these families is the largest humanitarian issue caused by the war between North and South Korea. The Unification Ministry believes there are approximately 600,000 to 700,000 South Korean citizens with family members living in North Korea.
Many of the participants in the reunion program are elderly. The President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in stated that time is running out on expanding the program. He believes it would be “shameful” for Koreans to see many people dying without finding out whether their family members are still alive. Moon was a participant of a reunion himself. In 2004 he attended one to meet with an aunt.
Despite South Korea’s willingness to expand the reunion program, North Korea is reluctant. Experts say the nation sees these family reunions as an important bargaining chip in negotiations. There is also a possibility they don’t want to give their citizens more awareness and knowledge of the world outside of North Korea. South Korea uses a computer-based lottery to pick people to participate in the reunions while it’s believed that North Korea chooses participants based on loyalty to the nation’s leadership.
After spending about half a day together over the span of three days, these families will meet and spend time together, but they’re unlikely to ever see each other again. They won’t even be allowed to write letters or make phone calls, so they do their best to just enjoy the moment. The Washington Post reported that a man named Kim Byung-oh said to his brother, “Oh brother, it will be great when reunification happens. Let reunification happen, and let’s live together for even just one minute before we die.”