In the fall of 2010, in a banquet hall in Kangwon Province in North Korea, South Korean lawmaker Woo Won Shik took a seat at table number 74. He had come with his mother to a government-sponsored meeting for families divided by the Korean War. They were there to meet Woo’s older sister, who had been left behind in North Korea in July of 1950, amid the chaos of a mushrooming civil war. In the buildup to the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, thousands of North Korean residents fled to the South, leaving behind parents, siblings, or relatives. Today, they represent the last generation of Koreans with memories of a unified peninsula.
Woo was born in South Korea years after his sister, and the banquet would be his first time meeting her; he worried that his 93-year-old mother might not recognize her. But when the banquet hall doors swung open at 3 p.m and the North Koreans walked in, she picked her out from the crowd immediately. Their tearful reunion had come after 60 years of separation and would last just three days, per the conditions agreed to by Seoul and Pyongyang. Later, Woo recalled “the burning joy when we met, and the abject misery of separation when we said goodbye.”
North Korea’s decision to participate in this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has stoked optimism that bigger diplomatic breakthroughs could be on the way. For South Koreans like Woo, with family in the North, the games represent a last hope to reconnect with their loved ones, and come to terms with a painful past. “The Pyeongchang Olympics is the last remaining hope for my mother,” Woo said in a recent speech before parliament. “The Pyeongchang Olympics may even be the last thread of opportunity for all divided families in this nation.”