SOKCHO, South Korea – Kim Kwang-ho was just 14 years old when his family was ripped in two during the Korean War. It was December 1950, and Chinese troops were advancing on his small hometown. With his father, two older brothers and an older sister, he fled south, first on foot, then perched on top of a train and finally packed impossibly tight into a transport ship.
His mother stayed behind with his 10-year-old brother and several cousins, expecting to join them later when the fighting was over, the journey safer.
“It was a pretty lighthearted farewell,” he said. “We thought we were only going to be apart for three days or a week.”
It was to be the last time he ever saw or even heard from his mother, who, he has just found out, died in Communist North Korea in 1967. On Monday, more than 67 years after they parted, he finally gets to see his younger brother again.
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Kim is one of 172 South Koreans who will travel into North Korea to meet relatives this week, in the first reunion of divided families to take place for three years, as relations thaw between the neighbors.
These reunions are simultaneously a reminder of the deep bonds between the two nations, and an illustration of just how far they have grown apart in the decades since their painful division.
The reunion program began in 1985, stalled, then got underway properly at the turn of the millennium. In all, more than 17,000 South Koreans have taken part in more than 20 meetings, seeing their relatives in person or over video link. But more than 130,000 have registered as members of divided families since the program began, and more than half of them died before getting to see their relatives again. Many on the waiting list are over 90 years old.
Some barely recognize those relatives they do get to meet.
Kim has vivid memories of life in North Korea: of climbing an apricot tree outside his house and sitting up there singing, looking out over an apple orchard; of running up into the hills when he heard the planes of the U.S.-led United Nations force flying toward his rural town, and watching their bombs, “boom-boom-boom,” exploding in a line along the railway tracks.
He remembers dozing off on top of the train carrying him toward the port of Hungnam, snow piling up on his shoulders. But he can’t remember his brother’s face, or even his mother’s anymore.
Still, he says he was happy to be chosen for the reunion and is looking forward to seeing his brother again. “My two older brothers who came south with me both died in their 60s,” he said. “My younger brother is 78 now, I am surprised to see he is still alive.”
He will come bearing gifts: some warm jackets, socks, soap and cosmetics for his brother’s wife, and two packets of Choco Pies, the cake-and-marshmallow chocolate sandwich snack made in South Korea but particularly coveted in the North.
Participants are discouraged from bringing cash, and he has chosen not to, worried that his brother probably wouldn’t get to keep it anyway. Luxury goods, including expensive bottles of spirits or watches, are also banned under U.N. sanctions.
On Sunday, the South Koreans gathered in the city of Sokcho, for a briefing on how to behave and what they can and cannot say, before traveling by bus across the border to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang on Monday.
Kim will have to stay in a different hotel than his brother in Mount Kumgang, but they will be brought together for group reunions, dinner banquets and lunches between Monday and Wednesday, including a three-hour individual meeting on Tuesday when they will exchange gifts.
Southern participants are advised not to criticize the North Korean leadership or ask about the country’s economic situation in case it causes problems for their relatives. And if their counterparts start singing propaganda songs or making political statements – a common problem in the past – participants are advised to “naturally lead the conversation to another topic.” Gifts of a propaganda-type nature should be politely refused.
Still, Kim is looking forward to hearing about his mother, and about how his hometown has changed. Then, on Wednesday, after just 11 hours together, he and his brother will part again, almost certainly for the last time.
The meetings are like a sudden spark of light after nearly seven decades of darkness. Many people have heard nothing about their relatives in the North during that entire time, and are nervous about who and what they will encounter. And then, after the brief meeting, darkness will reign once again.
“I really wish we could exchange letters afterwards, or talk to each other the phone, or by video call,” Kim said, “but these reunions are one-time-only meetings.”
Yun Jung-sik applied to see his older sister, whom he last saw when he was 12 in 1950. She was already married by then, with two young children, and when the rest of the family fled south, she stayed behind with her husband’s family.
Ten days ago, Yun found out he had been selected for this round of family reunions. But he also learned his sister had died 25 years ago.
Instead, he will meet her children, his nephew and niece. He knows nothing about them except their names and ages, 71 and 70 respectively.
“I feel pretty neutral about it, I’m not that excited,” he said. “Maybe if we’d exchanged pictures over the past 70 years, I might have felt differently.”
He and his wife will bring $260 in cash each, as well as clothes – eight pieces for women, in different sizes, and five for men – some vitamin pills, and, of course, some Choco Pies.
“I hope the family we are meeting have not become Communists all the way,” he said. “If they have become totally indoctrinated, they will not tell us frankly what their lives are like. I hope they’re not like that.”
There is a good chance they will be. Daily NK, a South Korean news service with contacts inside the North, reported last week that only North Koreans seen as loyal to the regime will be chosen for the reunions. That could rule out many people. North Koreans whose relatives had fled south were often seen as suspect and placed in the lowest rungs of the country’s heavily stratified society, experts say.
Either way, those who do get chosen have to undergo a month of political indoctrination to make sure they say the right thing, said Choe Eun-bum, who worked to reunite divided families at the Red Cross for many years.
“Among the first things the North Koreans tell their South Korean relatives is their gratitude to their great leader,” he said, which immediately “casts a chill over the long-awaited reunion.”
The 14-year-old Kim sailed south on the SS Meredith Victory, a U.S. Merchant Marine ship that was nicknamed the Ship of Miracles for carrying 14,000 refugees on that voyage, the largest land evacuation by a single ship.
Also on board were the parents of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Indeed, Moon accompanied his mother to meet her younger sister during one of the reunions in 2004, and says his personal history shapes his own desire for peace.
The Washington Post’s Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.