Red Cross facilitates inter-Korean Family Reunions

Published: 6 November 2015 8:18 CET

By Hyelim Kim, Korean National Red Cross

Two rounds of reunions were organized at Kumgang Mountain in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the end of October to allow 187 people to meet with their families living in the two Korean states. The reunions came after an inter-Korean summit where national leaders agreed to let a meeting between separated families take place this year.

This was the twentieth inter-Korean family reunion since 2000. As in previous events it was facilitated by the Red Cross societies of the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In RoK almost 130,000 people have applied to take part in family reunions over the past two decades, but now, half of these applicants are no longer alive. Each year, many people who were separated from their families die from old age making this event an urgent humanitarian priority for the Red Cross.

More than 60 years have passed since the end of the Korean War when the present borders between the countries were established. 80% of participants in this year’s reunions were in their eighties or older, including Mrs. Kim Mae Sun who is 80 years old and was able to travel to Kumgang Mountain with her daughter.

The oldest person to participate this year was 98 year-old Lee Suk Ju. For most of his adult life he has been dreaming of this moment, but he also wished that it was not the last time the family could meet.

“Father! Please live until the age of 130. I'll live until the age of 100," exclaimed his son Mr. Lee Dong Wook, who had not seen his father since he was a boy. Their emotional meeting at Kumgang Mountain demonstrated the strength of family bonds after more than half a century of separation.

The generation that still remembers their relatives on the other side has now mostly become very frail. To make sure that they would not be overwhelmed by the stress surrounding this important event, more than 300 Red Cross volunteers helped the participants from the south before they left for the north, giving wheelchairs and hearing aids to those who needed them. More than 50 medical and Red Cross staff accompanied the elders during the whole event.

92-year-old Mrs. Han Won Ja saw her husband’s face for the first time since fate split up their family many decades ago.

“I cannot believe that I saw my husband’s face today. I didn’t bring any photos of him when I left for the south,” she said in a trembling voice, her eyes still fixed on the old wedding photo he had given to her during their reunion.

In South Korea, the Red Cross organizes several other activities in addition to the family reunions. They record video messages from people in the south to their families in the north and conduct DNA testing to facilitate the search for relatives in the future when the generation that still remembers their family has passed away.