SEOUL – As his North Korean daughter wept Saturday, 93-year-old South Korean Park Un-hyeong tried to console her before boarding a bus to take him south across the world’s most heavily armed border after spending three days with her in the North. For Park and dozens of other Koreans at these rare reunions of families divided by the Korean War, it was likely the last time they’d see each other.
“You shouldn’t cry on this good day,” he told his daughter, Pak Myung Ok, 68, as he prepared to leave the North Korean resort that hosted the first reunions of North and South Koreans in more than three years, according to South Korean media pool reports. “We’ll be able to meet again soon. Trust your father, stay healthy and live well.”
In another emotional scene, an 84-year-old South Korean woman, Lee Oh-hwan, became short of breath from crying too hard and was immediately treated by a medical team. Her North Korean sister, 72-year-old Ri Ok Bin, tried to calm her down, telling her in an aching voice not to get sick.
Again and again, similar scenes played out as 80 elderly South Koreans said their goodbyes to North Korean relatives. They wept, held hands, caressed faces, took pictures and tried to convince themselves that they’d meet again.
Both democratic South Korea and authoritarian North Korea share the same type of rhetoric about eventual reunification, and many average Koreans say they long for that day. But after near continual animosity and occasional bloodshed since the three-year war ended in an unsteady armistice in 1953, many analysts see that as only a distant possibility.
The reunions will continue when a group of about 360 South Koreans arrives Sunday to meet with North Korean relatives whom most haven’t seen in six decades. The second and final round of reunions is set to end Tuesday.
It’s an unusual moment of detente between the rivals. Millions of Koreans were separated from loved ones by the tumult and bloodshed of the war, and few have been reunited. Both governments ban their citizens from visiting each other or even exchanging letters, phone calls and emails.
During a previous period of inter-Korean rapprochement, about 22,000 Koreans had brief reunions — 18,000 in person and the others by video. None got a second chance to reunite, Seoul says.
The current reunions were arranged after impoverished North Korea began calling recently for better ties with South Korea, in what outside analysts say is an attempt to win badly needed foreign investment and aid. But Pyongyang threatened to scrap the reunions to protest annual military drills between Seoul and Washington set to start Monday. North Korea had canceled previously scheduled reunions in September at the last minute.
In South Korea, there are still worries that the current reunions might be disrupted because of the impending military drills. Despite Pyongyang’s recent charm offensive, many in Seoul remember that a year ago North Korea threatened repeatedly to launch nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington.
The reality of the Korean division wasn’t lost on those lucky few who said their goodbyes Saturday. When it was time to part, many began to wail. North Korean personnel tried to calm down weeping North Korean families, according to the pool report, saying that too much crying would make them sick.
South Korean TV showed elderly North Koreans straightening their stooped backs to get a final look at loved ones who had boarded the buses. As their breaths steamed in the cold air, men wearing suits and women wearing thin traditional Korean dresses waved without gloves.
Some stood on tiptoes so they could put both of their hands on the bus windows, their loved ones doing the same on the inside of the glass. South Koreans on the bus shouted out goodbyes, wiping their faces with one hand and waving with the other. Some held up paper with names or thank you messages.
“Let’s meet again later,” South Korean Woo Young-shik wrote in part to his aunt. Then, flipping the paper over, he wrote a second message: “Stay healthy until the day we reunite.”