Families divided between Koreas find small hope in reunions

When the iron curtain fell between North and South Korea at the start of the Korean War in 1950, roughly 100,000 families were separated. My wife’s grandmother was among those who made it to the South but would never see their family who lingered behind again. By fortune or by choice, she was cut off from her loved ones, most likely not realizing she would probably never see them again. Chances are she won’t see them before she passes away and they might not even still be alive.

True, family reunions have been held between the two nations since the war. But the amount of families that have been given the opportunity is a tiny proportion of the total- roughly 16,000 families. During this time, for the other less fortunate families, there have been no phone calls, no letters, and no emails. My wife’s grandmother doesn’t even know if her kin are still alive.

Recent strife between the countries suspended the family reunion program for a year and nine months. With talks resuming this week, Koreans are optimistic that family reunions will initiate again as soon as October. Still, only 100 families are likely to be involved.

I wonder about this woman who has been separated from her family connections for so long. I wonder what it must be like to know that your siblings are a few hundred miles away or to not know if they are even living. For all she knows, they may have all died decades ago. She has pressed on with her life. She lives in the countryside of South Korea. She raises her own groceries and ascends a mountain everyday. She has reared five kids who have continued on to their own lives in South Korea and in the U.S. I ponder if, with all the intervening years, her recollection of her family has faded.

Similar anecdotes came out of the USSR all through the Cold War, especially for Germans and Prussians who unexpectedly found their homelands separated and their kin scattered in the outcome of World War II. Fortunately, those who lived to see the collapse of the iron curtain did have an opportunity to come together with family and reconnect their fractured families.

So, is there hope for Koreans of a enduring gathering with their family alienated from them by an oppressive government? The iron curtain fell quicker in Europe than anyone could have supposed. Maybe someday in the near-future, Kim Jong Il will suddenly release his grip on his people and open his borders. Maybe they will stop threatening the world with a nuclear war they can’t possibly win. Maybe their people will be able to be given the truth about their international neighbors, not fear-mongering propaganda but uncensored truthfulness.

Until then, short-lived family reunions are the only hope separated Korean families have of restoring severed bonds.