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.”
Although Pyongyang and Seoul have sporadically sponsored reunions for divided families in the past, such meetings have ceased after a decline in relations between the two countries in 2015. “Reuniting divided families is a topic that the North Korean authorities are politically averse to,” Yoon Young Kwan, the South Korean foreign minister from 2003 to 2004, told me. “They don’t like the possibility of North Korean residents realizing that they are poorer and in greater hardship than their South Korean counterparts during the course of these reunions. It can expose a weakness of their regime.”
After decades of separation, many have lost contact with those they left behind, with no knowledge of whether their kin are alive or dead. Meanwhile, time is running out. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Reunification, of the approximately 13,000 people officially registered as members of divided families, less than half are alive. Their average age is 81.
73-year-old Kim Jae Hoo fled his North Korean hometown of Hungnam shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War. At the urging of South Korean military officers who had been billeted at their house, Kim’s family barely managed to escape on one of the last ships retreating back to South Korea in 1950, just before the North Korean and Chinese armies surged through Hungnam. He left behind his aunts, uncles, and cousins, and hasn’t seen them since. “We all felt a lot of optimism when we heard the news that North Korea would participate,” he told me. “With continued dialogue and the various Olympics events like the North Korean performance group [a reference to the North Korean orchestra and cheerleading squad at the games], I’m hoping there will be some meaningful progress. This could be our last chance.”
Along with government-sponsored reunions, advocacy groups are pushing for inter-Korean cooperation in ascertaining whether long-lost family members in North Korea are still alive. “Only a very small fraction of divided families get to meet at those reunion events so what we want is a more fundamental solution, starting with finding out whether the family members in North Korea are alive or dead, and allowing them to exchange letters,” said Lee Sang Chul, head of the Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten Million Separated Families. “In the case of those whose parents were left in North Korea, we want their children to at least be able to know when their parents passed away so that they can pay their respects.”
84-year-old Choe Eun Bum, who fled his North Korean hometown of Myongchon with his older brother’s family when he was 14 years old, said his only remaining wish is to know what happened to the parents he left behind. “Not knowing when and how they died or where they’re buried is my greatest regret,” Choe said. Despite a long career at the Red Cross, where he worked on issues related to divided families, Choe said he can only speculate on their fate. “My guess is that they fled their home after the Korean War broke out, but got separated from the others. It was an unusually cold winter that year. They could have died [during their escape] or been captured and died a tragic death.”
In spite of the ostensible goodwill between North and South Korea leading up to the Olympics, it is uncertain whether this will lead to the kind of progress those like Choe are hoping for. Last month when South Korean officials brought up the issue of reuniting divided families, the Kim regime demanded the repatriation of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South in 2016 in return. Seoul refused the request, saying that the workers had defected willingly and would not be forcibly sent back. Since then, the issue has not come up, despite South Korea’s desire to pursue it.
“In the past, whenever the relationship between North and South Korea became strained, the divided families issue would be the first topic the two countries would talk about in efforts to relieve the tension, because it’s the most humanitarian topic,” Lee Sang Chul said. “But this time the premise of dialogue has been the Olympics, so there’s a sense that this problem is being pushed to the side.”
Much like the Olympic Games themselves, the plight of divided families is ultimately at the mercy of larger diplomatic considerations. Nothing at the negotiating table with Pyongyang is free, Yoon said. And with international sanctions against North Korea still in place, “there is little we can offer North Korea in return.”