As Relations Improve, North And South Korea Revive Cross-Border Reunions

Aug 20, 2018
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today a group of South Koreans boarded a bus and traveled to North Korea for reunions with relatives who became separated before and during the Korean War. NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us from Seoul. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So there was video released of these meetings, I know, but - I mean, just walk us through what was taking place and what we saw today.

SULLIVAN: So what was taking place was basically reunions between separated families who had been separated for more than 60 years. And the video showed about what you'd expect - tearful reunions between families, most of them siblings meeting other siblings since it was a long time ago they were separated. There were very few people actually meeting with their parents. But there were lots of tears, lots of big, long embraces that didn't seem to end, and the anticipation they'll have a chance to speak more with their families in the course of the next few days - some 11 hours of meetings in all, we're told, in the next three days.

GREENE: In the next three days, and then then they'll be separated again but have more chance to have more contact in the coming weeks and months. Is that what we're expecting?

SULLIVAN: We're not expecting that at all. That's never happened before, and we don't expect that to happen again. But there are warming ties between the two countries, so who knows?

GREENE: Wow. OK, so a lot of uncertainty still, even though this happened. And I know you had a chance to meet with some of these relatives ahead of this. Tell me about some of the people you met.

SULLIVAN: They were all separated in different ways. One of the men we spoke with left before the war started. He was in his 80s. He left - he lived in the North, but he hated the communists, so he left his mother and his sister and a little brother behind. He joined the South Korean army, got married, made a life, then basically forgot about everything but put his name on this list, but forgot about it until he got a phone call earlier this month saying he was chosen to meet his sister. His mother already died in the late '70s. He doesn't know what happened to his brother. He hopes his sister will tell him.

We met another woman whose brother was taken by invading North Koreans at the beginning of the war who had a terrible life during the war. She got a phone call, too, and thought she was going to meet her brother. But then she got a call two days later saying he died...

GREENE: Oh.

SULLIVAN: ...But she could meet his son and his wife, and she agreed. And then there was another man who left his mother and his brother in the North during the war, came here and made a life, also got on the list, also forgot about it basically until he got the phone call, too. And today I saw on that pool video from the North that showed him meeting with his 78-year-old brother, looking at photographs, looking at pictures, and he was visibly moved. And I'm guessing these are photos his brother brought because he told me he was hoping that he would. And he looked very, very happy.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, just on a personal level this seems like extraordinary moments for these families. But sort of give us the broad look, Michael. I mean, is this a significant step when it comes to this relationship between the two Koreas right now?

SULLIVAN: It's significant in that it hasn't happened for three years now. It's happened 20 times since the year 2000. And the really significant part is that more than 130,000 people have put their names on the list to see their families, but over time, 75,000 of them have died waiting. So the lucky ones are the ones who have been reunited. But the rest who are still waiting - we don't know what's going to happen with them.

This meeting happened because there has been a thaw in relations between the two countries over the past three years. And that's why this one happened. And that's why there's a lot of hope here that more will happen before all these older people who really want some sort of closure from the war get it.

GREENE: NPR's Michael Sullivan reporting for us from Seoul this morning. Michael, thanks a lot.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, David.

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