After 65 years, families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War were reunited for just four days in state-arranged reunions in the heavily controlled North Korea. Fewer than 100 elderly applicants from each country were chosen to meet long-lost relatives for the first time in over half a century. Just 21 reunions have occurred in the 33 years since the first was organized by the Red Cross. South Koreans were chosen through a lottery system, while the reclusive North reportedly prioritized government loyalists and included many decorated dignitaries. This year’s number represents less than 2% of 57,000 South Korean applicants who are still alive. 84% are over 70 years old. More than 75,200 South Korean applicants have passed away without ever knowing whether their children, siblings, or spouses are alive or dead.
“Being separated from your family is something unimaginable” 85-year-old Jung Kea-hyun, who has applied 21 times, told CNN. Jung just wants “to know if they are still alive.” Family separation caused by the Korean War is “an unthinkable human tragedy,” said Park Kyung-seo, president of the South Korean Red Cross. Reunions only occur on the rare occasions diplomatic relations on the peninsula are amicable. While communication between the North and South Red Cross organizations has been cut for the last two years due to rising tensions, this year’s reunion follows a historic summit on the Korean Peninsula, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry praising “the new journey” on the path towards peace. However, trust is hard-won and there is still a long way to go. “Expectations are high, [but] so is the skepticism,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated.
Time is running out for families separated by the war. For them, every day counts. Parents are embracing elderly children for the first time since they were infants. They have missed the chance to see them grow up. They have missed the chance to see them grow old. These reunions should serve to remind those in power that the full consequences of wars stretch far beyond the political arena. 65 years on, the trauma of the so-called “forgotten war” has had a far-reaching impact on the families who have been torn apart.
While separation still mars the hearts of these families, the peninsula itself remains divided. The Korean War never officially came to an end. An armistice agreement granted a ceasefire in 1953, but a formal peace treaty was never agreed upon. Leaders of each country have met just three times in the 65 years since the armistice. This year’s historic talks mark the first time a Kim dynastic leader has stepped over the border to the South. In a historic turn of events, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to work towards the “common goal” of denuclearization on the peninsula, and have set their sights on putting an end to the Korean War. North and South Korea marched together in the Winter Olympics with a combined women’s hockey team, which hopefully represents a move toward a unified future.
The prospect of reunification has long seemed a distant fantasy to many in the international community. Until recently, North Korea’s nuclear aspirations and horrific human rights abuses, U.S. sanctions, and the heavily armed DMZ made the idea highly unlikely. North Korea, enduring underdevelopment and mass starvation due to its isolationism, has watched as the South became one of the richest and most well-educated nations in the world. The recent talks mark a change in the political landscape, and reunification has now never been more likely. “Brother, it would be really good if Korean unification comes,” 81-year-old North Korean Kim Sun Ok said amidst a tearful reunion, “Let’s live together even at least one minute after unification before we die.”