Lee Keum-seom was separated from her son Ri Sang-chol during the Korean War. The devastated mom was forced to be without him for decades as the divide between North and South Korea stood strong. But after 68 years, the 92-year-old saw a face that she could never forget.
During the Korean War, many families fled to the south. Among them were Lee, her husband and their four-year-old son, Ri. Lee made it to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but tragically Ri was left behind and had to remain on the north side.
Lee’s husband stayed with their little boy, and the family were unable to see each other. But although their story is a tragic one, it’s also extremely common. In fact, there are thought to be hundreds of thousands of family members who were separated because of the Korean War.
The Korean War commenced in 1950. North and South Korea had been experiencing conflicts because they both claimed to have governing powers over the entire country. Korea had been divided into two states as a result of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
North Korean attacks began on June 25, 1950, with backing from China and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea. The war went on until July 27, 1953, when both states signed an agreement and the demilitarized zone between the two nations was established.
It was this that formally separated the Korean Peninsula into the two divided nations that stand today. During the three years of the conflict, an estimated 2.5 million people were killed or wounded, and many families were torn apart. According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, around 700,000 South Koreans have family members in North Korea.
However, visits across the border between North and South Korea are usually prohibited. Indeed, it’s uncommon for family members separated by the Korean border to have any form of contact with each other. Even after the fighting ended, relations between the two states have remained frosty. In fact, the nations never even agreed a peace treaty. It was only in April 2018 that the countries finally vowed that they’d sign one in the near future and officially bring the war to an end.
The Panmunjom Declaration, as it was formally known, was agreed upon by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. As part of the accord, the countries decided to reunite a number of relatives divided by the border. In fact, such meetings first began in 2000 with the help of the Red Cross, although none had occurred since 2015.
Since they started, these reunions have been held on 20 occasions, with close to 20,000 people taking part and a further 3,500 sending each other video messages. However, none of those involved have been able to see their loved ones for a second time. In addition, the Unification Ministry claims that almost half of the 130,000 South Koreans who submitted applications have since passed away.
The reunions had ceased after North Korea started to test nuclear weapons, but Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in agreed to continue them after their April 2018 summit. An estimated 57,000 families applied, although just 89 were chosen, made up of 330 people from the south visiting 185 family members in North Korea during August 2018. And two of them were Lee and her son Ri.
Over half of the people chosen for the reunions were above the age of 80. The South Koreans who participated traveled by bus to a resort close to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, where they would see their loved ones for the first time in decades. And Lee was understandably anxious about the big moment.
“What shall I ask? Oh, I should ask him what his father told him about me,” Lee said to CNN. “His father must have told him about how we got separated and where our house used to be. I should ask him about that.”
Lee also said that she’d spent many years hoping that she and her son would live long enough to see each other again. “[My family] in North Korea didn’t live long so I prayed for my son’s health,” she added. Lee was accompanied by her two daughters, who were raised in the south, and Ri was joined by his daughter-in-law.
The emotional reunion was captured on camera. Lee called out Ri’s name when she saw him and gave him a hug. The mother and her son held hands, pressed their faces together and cried.
Ri is now 71 and a senior citizen himself but had been just four years old when he was separated from his mother. He wept as he showed Lee a photo of her late husband, who had stayed behind with Ri in the north after their family was ripped apart. “This is a photo of my father, mom,” he said through tears.
Two groups of reunions occurred, each over the course of three days. The meetings, which took place under close observation, lasted for 11 hours in total. Another of those involved was Han Shin-Ja, 99. She was able to see her daughters, who are now in their 70s and live in North Korea.
Han and her youngest daughter had fled to the south because she didn’t realize that they would be separated forever. She tried to explain herself to her long-lost daughters but broke down in tears. Kim Dal-in, 92, and his sister Yu Dok, 85, were among the others participating. “How are you so old?” he asked her. She tearfully responded, “I’ve lived this long to meet you.”
The president of the Red Cross in South Korea, Park Kyung-seo, recognized that only a lucky few were able to have these experiences. “I share fully with the disappointment of those who are not selected, so I am trying with North Korean partners to try and find other solutions. Huge numbers are waiting,” he told CNN. “Imagine 73 years long without knowing whether their family members are still alive or passed away – no news at all. The agony and anger, that’s an unthinkable human tragedy.”
In South Korea, participants are selected by lottery. However, it has been claimed that North Korea picks families based on their devotion to the country’s leader. Moreover, it’s thought that the notoriously oppressive nation does not wish to increase the number of reunions because they allow its citizens to gain a greater understanding of life outside the north. In contrast, South Korea’s President Moon, who took part in a reunion with his own separated aunt in 2004, hopes there will be a lot more to come.
“Expanding and expediting the reunion has the utmost priority out of all the humanitarian projects that both Koreas must conduct,” Moon said in a statement. “The Koreas must more boldly make an effort towards solving the divided families issue. As a member of a divided family myself, I sympathize deeply with that sadness and pain. There really is no time.”