Bittersweet emotions mark reunions of families long separated in the two Koreas.
Lee Beom-ju, 86, had little to say at first.
“I am sorry, I am sorry,” he told his long-lost younger brother and sister in North Korea when he finally met them Thursday during the first family reunions on the divided Korean Peninsula in more than three years.
Lee, now a South Korean citizen, fled the North in 1951 during the Korean War. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the peninsula still divided.
Until Thursday, Lee had not seen his family since, living with a sense of guilt for failing to look after them as the eldest son. Hwa-ja, the little sister he last saw 63 years ago, is now a 72-year-old grandmother.
“Grandfather told me to run, run and go to the south, away from the war, because I was his eldest grandson,” Lee said in tears, explaining to his sister and his brother, Yoon-Ju, 67, why he had to leave them behind.
Lee was among 83 elderly South Koreans, including a 96-year-old grandmother, who crossed the border in buses and ambulances Thursday to meet 178 North Korean relatives at a resort in southeastern North Korea.
The rival governments agreed to the family reunions as their first serious gesture toward easing frayed ties and rebuilding trust after several years of tensions caused by the North’s nuclear tests and provocations.
The reunions bore witness to the pain that the long divide on the peninsula has inflicted upon “separated families,” whose members were torn apart during the war.
Graying sons and sisters hugged and collapsed in tears on the laps of their parents and brothers, many of whom were so old and weak that they had to make the trip across the border in wheelchairs.
“I never knew it would take so long,” Lee Sun-Hyang, 88, told her North Korean brother Yun-geun, 71, according to pool reports from the South Korean news media. Foreign reporters were not allowed to cover the event.
“Father’s last wish in his deathbed was that I should look and find you,” Kim Myeong-bok, 66, told his North Korean sister, Myeong-ja, 68, the only family member left in the North.
Lee Young-Sil, 88, who has Alzheimer’s, did not recognize her North Korean sister and daughter. A 93-year-old man named Kang Neung-hwan met the North Korean son born after he fled to the South.
The separation has been so long that some carried their prewar photos to help their siblings recognize them. They also packed photos of their hometowns as well as gifts for their relatives in the impoverished North.
The family reunions are a highly emotional issue and a barometer of the status of relations on the peninsula. The two Koreas agreed to revive the humanitarian program last week after the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for improved relations with the South during his New Year’s Day speech.
The family reunions were held in 2009 but were suspended again the following year amid souring relations.
For these elderly people, the meetings will most likely be their last chance to see their relatives before they die. Their initial tearful joy was replaced by their heartbreak as they bid farewell.
A total of 22,000 people from both Koreas participated in the past reunions. About 71,000 South Koreans — more than half of whom are 80 or older — are still on a waiting list for an opportunity to meet with relatives in the North. South Korean participants are selected by lottery. It is unclear how the North chooses theirs.