The most powerful emotions Lee Su-nam ever felt were on the afternoon of 25 July. He was sitting in his living room talking to his daughter who was visiting when his phone rang. The conversation lasted only a minute, but Lee discovered his older brother, long presumed dead, was alive and living in North Korea. The last time Lee saw his brother, Lee Jong-seong, was August 1950, a day he remembers for the heat and ripeness of the peaches on the trees. As the North Korean army approached Seoul, Lee’s parents decided to send their eldest son away for fear he would be conscripted into the communist militia if he remained. He was captured on the road and the family spent the next 68 years assuming he died in the 1950-53 Korean war.
Since the beginning of the year, relations between North and South Korea have improved dramatically, and as part of that rapprochement, the two sides have organised reunions this week between long-separated families. The meetings are the first of their kind since 2015, but those participating have little knowledge of what to expect. Lee Su-nam has a single piece of paper confirming his brother’s age, 86, and the fact he is alive. It also lists a wife and child, and the promising if the hard-to-decipher comment that more extended family could also be living in the North. “The first thing I’m going to say to my brother is, ‘thank you for being alive,’” Lee, 76, said as he spread ageing family photos on his kitchen table. “But I also need to be careful, I know there are lots of things we can’t talk about because of the politics in the North. We have been separated for such a long time with no connection. It’s going to take a while for the differences to melt away.”
South Korea is sending 93 people to Mount Kumgang, a tourist region in North Korea, after more than 132,000 South Koreans applied for the chance to see long-lost relatives. The group from South Korea will meet their families between 20 and 22 August and North Koreans will meet their families in the South between 24 and 26 August. Of those who applied, North Korea’s Red Cross could identify less than half, about 57,000, who were still alive. Lee will travel North with another of his brothers but has no information as to what will happen once they arrive. Family reunions have been used as a first step towards building better relations between the two sides in the past, but as time passes, those who can remember their relatives are ageing and many have already died. There have been 20 reunions since 2000, with the last round held in October 2015 before relations between the two sides deteriorated.
‘I’m going to be happy and sad’
This reunion comes at a time when hope that diplomacy can force North Korea to make concessions on its nuclear program are fading. “No one has rose-coloured glasses about unification, but for South Korea coexistence is important,” says Vipin Narang, a politics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “South Korea is much more comfortable living with a nuclear North Korea as long as there are positive exchanges, and an official there have become more realistic about the potential outcomes as the US process has stalled. These may look like small goodwill gestures, but they are an important part of the trust-building process which North Korea has signalled its values,” he adds. Lee spent his entire life living in the same neighbourhood. He went to the same secondary school as his missing brother, and his surroundings are a constant reminder of the once happy family now scarred by war. But those memories are increasingly fading as a younger generation in South Korea focuses on economic growth and the fight for gender equality, rather than unification of the peninsula. The group of South Koreans travelling North includes a 101-year-old man and a 100-year-old woman, and more than a third are over 90. This round of reunions may be the only time they can meet face to face, and Lee does not even know if they will be able to exchange letters in the future. “I’m going to be happy and sad at the same time when I see him,” Lee said. “I’ll be sad because there’s no guarantee that we’ll see each other again.”
Credit: Benjamin Haas for The Guardian, 19 August 2018. Additional reporting by Junho Lee.