Reunited after 65 years, Korean families let the tears do the talking
SOKCHO, South Korea — The couple approached each other rather warily, as if unsure of what to say. After all, what's the ice-breaker for a husband you haven't seen for 65 years? How do you address a wife you've been told has been corrupted by American imperialists?
Lee Soon-gyu and her husband Oh In Se last saw each other in September 1950, when she was 19 years old and six months pregnant. They were separated during the Korean War, when the front line rolled up and down the peninsula.
They were reunited for a few hours during a rare inter-Korean gathering Tuesday, together with their son Oh Jang-kyun, who is now 65 and was wearing a black hat almost identical to his father's. They smiled weakly.
"Come, sit close to me," 83-year-old Oh said to his wife, gesturing towards a table in a crowded ballroom at the Kumgang mountain resort just over the northern side of the line that has arbitrarily divided the Koreas for generations.
Oh sat between his wife and his son, holding their hands. Just as they groped for words, they also struggled to hear each other - perhaps because of the noise in the crowded hall, perhaps because Oh had almost no teeth and a huge hearing aid.
But it didn't matter. They were grateful to be one of the 96 Korean families chosen for this reunion, out of the 66,000-plus South Koreans who wanted to participate.
Time is running out for Koreans to see their long-lost relatives. More than half of those wanting to meet with their family members in the North are now over the age of 80, according to the Red Cross, which organizes the events.
Koo Sang-yun was the oldest South Korean at the event at 98. He took two pairs of red traditional shoes for his two daughters, Sung-ja and Sun-ok, who are now 71 and 68 years old, respectively. They were seven and four when they were separated from their father in September 1950, a few months after the war began.
When they were children, Koo had promised his daughters new shoes. Almost seven decades later, he was making good on that promise.
The Southerners were already in the reunion hall when the well-known Korean song "Nice to see you" came on the sound system. The Northerners came in.
"Is that him?" they asked. "Oh, I recognize her!" So many years had passed that a lot had to rely on name tags to find their relatives.
Foreign media were not allowed into the reunions, but a pool of domestic reporters brought footage back here to the Southern side of the border. It showed heart-wrenching scenes of sisters clutching at their brothers, a son bursting into tears introducing himself to his father, nephews kneeling on the floor to bow to uncles.
These families were divided when the supposedly temporary division of the peninsula was made permanent with the 1950-53 Korean War, which cemented the North in the communist orbit, while the South was allied with the United States and embraced capitalism with vigor.
That means family members have lived vastly different existences sometimes just miles apart, with no opportunity to contact each other.
The disparities between life in the developed South and the impoverished North were on stark display at the gathering. The North Koreans looked far older than their Southern peers, their faces more wrinkled and leathery, and many of them were entirely toothless.
The families will spend time with their relatives in their hotel rooms Wednesday, eating and drinking - the organizers selected low-alcohol liquor on account of the participants' ages - and catching up on six lost decades.
"Thank you for being alive," Lee, who was wearing a traditional Korean dress and had her long grey hair back in a bun, told her husband Tuesday. She had stayed living in their house and had never remarried, hopeful that her husband would one day return.
She had brought him a simple gold watch, which she had engraved with each of their names. "Watches were precious in the past in the countryside," Lee said as she put it on his wrist. "I've always regretted not being able to give [you] a watch."
Oh, the son, told reporters here before he left for the reunion that he was looking forward to being able to say "Father" for the first time in his life. That's exactly what he did.
"Father," he shouted at the sight of the old man, before bowing deeply, as is Korean custom, and hugging his father. "I've always tried to live as a proud son of yours," he said, crying.
Lee told her husband that she had been strict with their son throughout his childhood so he wouldn't get criticized for being brought up without a father.
For his part, Oh, who was wearing the obligatory badge of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on his lapel, seemed unsure quite what to say. He patted Lee on the back repeatedly and put his face against his son's, asking if they looked alike.
"It's all because of the war," he said, holding Lee's hand.
Washington Post correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.