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Some Elderly Koreans Ambivalent About Separated Family Reunion

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son Gwon after their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone, North Korea, Aug. 13, 2018.

Some South Koreans who were separated from their families during the Korean War say they are ambivalent about participating in next week’s inter-Korean reunions.

The reunion for separated families will take place from August 20 to 26 in the North’s Kumgang mountain resort. The reunion is one of a number of cooperation and exchange programs to promote reconciliation that were agreed to by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the inter-Korean summit in April.

Already passed

This year less than 100 family members from both the North and South will participate.

Many participants are in their 80s and have already lost the families they remember.

Baik Seong-yeon, 84, learned her brothers and sisters in North Korea had already passed away after she was selected to join the upcoming reunion for separated families.

Baik will meet with the spouses of her late brother and sister, and with a niece from the North Korean side of her family. And she is not expecting an emotional meeting with these distant relatives that she dos not know.

“As I have not met them before, I do not have a personal attachment, but I think that we are blood-related,” said Baik.

Decades of division

Baik, who was born in Sunchon, in the South Pyongan Province of North Korea, fled to the South to escape the fighting during the war. She left behind her parents and siblings.

For the last 70 years she, along with millions of others families that were separated during the fighting, was unable to return or even contact her family due to repressive restrictions imposed by the communist government in Pyongyang.

These official family reunions began in the year 2000 when the South Korean government reached out with economic assistance and engagement to the North in an effort to improve relations. But they have not been held on a regular basis due to ongoing tensions over the North’s nuclear tests and other provocations, such as when North Korea fired artillery shells at a South Korean border island in 2010.

So far the program has reconnected only a fraction of the more than 57,000 South Koreans who remain registered to participate. The last divided family reunion was held three years ago.

Frail and debilitating

Some of these remaining war survivors, like 90-year-old Kang Hwa-ja, are frail and suffering from decreasing cognitive skills. She lives with her daughter in Incheon, requires full time care, can only walk with assistance, and exhibits signs of dementia.

Kang’s daughter Kim Yeon-sook said she did not apply to participate in this year’s reunion. They were surprised when she was selected, and reluctant to go after learning Kang’s direct relatives in the North have all died.

“As they are not her direct brother or sister, there will be an emotional gap,” said Kim, who will accompany her mother to meet for the first time the son and daughter of Kang's younger brother.

Kang Hwa-ja and Baik Seong-yeon and other aging participants have decided to go primarily to learn how their relatives lived and died in the isolated and impoverished North. And rather than hoping to re-establish family ties, they see this as a chance to say a final goodbye.

“When we meet, we will talk about what happened in the past. It probably will be the first and the last time,” said Baik.

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.