Friday, October 29, 2010

Siblings separated by Korean War to meet after 59 years

Elderly South Koreans, who were separated from their families during the 1950-53 Korean War, hold a traditional ritual for their deceased relatives at Imjingak peace park in Paju in North Korea, near the inter-Korea border, on September 14.
Elderly South Koreans, who were separated from their families during the 1950-53 Korean War, hold a traditional ritual for their deceased relatives at Imjingak peace park in Paju in North Korea, near the inter-Korea border, on September 14.
 
Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- Kim Byung-ki will see his sister for the first time in 59 years, a sibling he thought was dead until last year. They'll reunite this weekend for the first time since the Korean War tore apart their family.
 
Last year, the South Korean Kim got word that his sister was alive, in North Korea. He hadn't seen her since 1951, when she was 15 years old.

He was a police officer during the 1950-53 Korean War, and often was away from home. When he returned one day, "She was gone. I asked where she was and she had been kidnapped [by North Korean soldiers]. After that, we didn't know where she was," Kim said.
Why are the two Koreas so hostile?

"My mother was just waiting for her to get back. She was old. She couldn't go out to look for her. Even if she wanted, she didn't even know where she could search," Kim added. "It was a vague hope. She wondered, will it be today? Will it be tomorrow? She just waited."
Kim's wife, Kwon Bong-sook, shared her memories of those traumatic years:
"All the family was alive then. Three generations lived at the house and people waited for her to come back."
"But time passed, we weren't able to think. There were shootings, bombs, the men went to the army. ... I didn't even know if my husband was alive."
"Life was hard then. That was how we lived then. My brother and my father were also gone. Everything was taken from us. We didn't have food."
"There were bombs. It was not a proper life. We just tried to survive. After this, we thought she died. We could have never imagined she survived."

But the siblings remained apart and incommunicado even after Kim learned his sister was still alive last year.
Millions of Koreans were divided by the war. No mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges exist between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.

The war ended in a truce, but without a formal peace treaty. The prickly relationship between the countries has since had periodic conciliatory moves and flare-ups.

Family reunions have happened sporadically since 2000, when the North and South held their first summit. Fewer than 21,000 family members have reunited since. About one-fifth of them have reunited via video. More than 80,000 South Koreans await an opportunity to reunite with loved ones, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Kim and his sister will take part in weeklong reunions slated to start Saturday at Mount Kumgang, the two countries' joint mountain resort in the North. They'll be among the 100 people from each side who've been allowed to participate.
"I want to talk to her. I want to hug her. I want to show her I care," Kim said of his sister. "We have to talk and ask about her life."

"I will ask her about her family, how many relatives she has, if she has children, how many," Kim said. "We got separated when she was [15], it's been 60 years. I am very curious about what she did. Does she have a family? Does she have kids? I want to know about her everyday life."
"I'm happy. I'm curious about how she lives," he added.
He'll have to curb some of that curiosity, under the terms of the reunions.

"We received a memo," Kim said. "We can't talk about shocking things or whether we live well or not."
Kim spent the past several decades as a civil servant, then managed a hotel on the South Korean resort island of Jeju.

If his sister were allowed to visit South Korea, "I would take her for a walk and go up the mountain with her. I want to show her how we live," Kim said.
"But that won't be possible. Bringing her, that would be just a wish. It is not realistic."
He'll have to settle for bringing his sister basic supplies, which many North Koreans lack.
"Our children are preparing everything," Kim said. "We can prepare basic products for everyday use. For example, we can take socks, clothes and jackets, but we can't wear expensive products. It has to be under 100,000 won ($89) We need everything, like toothpaste and medicines."
It's hard to know what special treats his sister might favor.
"I don't remember what she liked," Kim said.
"She had a garden in front of the house with flowers," he said. "If she had good flowers, she would give some to friends and get others from other friends. She was a nice girl. She was [15 years old], what did she know about life then?"

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