By Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – Hahm Ok-yeop waited nearly 60 years to see the brother and sister she had left behind in North Korea. Now she wishes she hadn’t met them again.
The 74-year-old grandmother was among the 97 South Koreans who crossed the border to the communist North at the weekend to reunite with family members they had not seen since the peninsula was ripped in half by the 1950-53 Korean War.
“I just feel so bad … worse than I would have if I had not gone,” Hahm said in an interview after returning from the fleeting reunions at the South Korean-funded Mount Kumgang resort, just inside the impoverished North.
“I don’t feel very well after the visit and my heart just aches for them all.”
The relatives were allowed to spend three days together, under the watchful eye of officials from the North, home to one of the world’s most secretive societies and whose government treats the reunions as a chance to squeeze desperately needed funds from its wealthy neighbor.
The two Koreas began reunions in 2000 for the hundreds of thousands of divided families, but the North put them on hold for about two years due to political tension, which has also seen the South stop what was once free-flowing aid because of Pyongyang’s program to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Most of the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans looking for lost family members in the North are 70 or older. According to government statistics, at least 40,000 have already died before hearing word of what had happened to their relatives in the North.
“They were just so skinny,” Hahm said of her sister and brother. “I grabbed my sister and asked her why she was so skinny … and it was because they don’t have much to eat there. I felt so terrible.”
Destitute North Korea, stung by U.N. sanctions triggered by nuclear and missile tests, has in recent months reached out to the South, proposing renewed business ties and resuming the emotionally charged reunions.
It takes a cut of all the cash and gifts those from the South give to their relatives, and Hahm, who has become wealthy from South Korea’s economic boom, took more than most to her long-lost siblings.
REUNIONS HELD HOSTAGE
The reunions were supposed to be a show of goodwill on the part of both sides but have been held hostage to the whims of North Korea, which has suspended them in fits of anger and to increase pressure on Seoul to bend to its demands.
The latest round also involved 99 people from the North, two of them fisherman from the South who were kidnapped in the 1980s.
Local media reported that one South Korean man killed himself after failing to make the list of those joining the reunions.
There have been 16 rounds of family reunions for about 16,000 people from both Koreas since they began in 2000 after a landmark summit between the rivals’ leaders that year, which led to a rapid warming of ties, now turned chilly again.
Lee Sun-ok, 79, who was at the weekend reunions, said she realized that whether by choice or force, ideology had come to divide them.
“I might be exaggerating a little, but every 10 minutes, my sister would bring up something about Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung,” she said.
Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean leader, and his father Kim Il-sung who died in 1994, have run the reclusive state since its founding as a dynasty, using personality cults and crushing internal dissent.
“So I had to tell her (my sister) to stop. You’re with family and it’s your duty not to speak like that.”
(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Bill Tarrant)