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A Brief Reunion And A Heartbreaking Final Goodbye For A Separated Korean Family


Eighty-nine South Koreans have returned from reunions in North Korea. They met with family members they hadn't seen since the Korean War. NPR's Michael Sullivan has the story of one South Korean who made the trip.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I spoke with Kim Gwang-ho yesterday just after he'd gotten back from the North while his wife was making dinner in the kitchen. When I first spoke with him, before he went, he was worried he wouldn't recognize his brother. After 68 years apart, he was right to be worried.

KIM GWANG-HO: (Through interpreter) At first, I couldn't be sure it was him.

SULLIVAN: But then Kim started asking his brother Kim Gwang-il questions, testing him, even - little things, like what you could see from the house they grew up in or about a nearby stream. His brother got them all and then showed Kim some family pictures that erased all doubt.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Oh, I was happy. It was a good moment. I was especially grateful that he lived to reach the age of 78 in the North Korean environment. It made me tear up.

SULLIVAN: Not for the last time. They met over the course of three days in a North Korean resort hotel. On the second day, the two brothers and their wives met for several hours without minders.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I asked him when my mother passed and what happened to my sisters-in-law. We went through all the family members in the North. Then we went over those in the South. Then we ran out of time. We didn't even have time to eat our lunch.

SULLIVAN: But not before Kim's brother asked a question that gutted him, about the time Kim left him 68 years ago when he and his father and his three older siblings left briefly - they thought - planning on returning after the South Koreans pushed the North Koreans back. It was December 1950.

KIM: (Through interpreter) He must have felt hurt to ask me about that. Hearing that made my heart sink.

SULLIVAN: Kim explained that wasn't the case, that they left him and his mother only because they thought they'd be back in a few weeks. His brother seemed to accept this. They changed subjects. Kim asked how he'd gotten by the past 68 years. And his brother, a retired chemist, said things had been OK.

KIM: (Through interpreter) He basically told me in his North Korean dialect that he is doing well and not to worry, but I doubt he actually is. The clothes he wore there and the traditional clothes his wife wore? He bragged to me that the Red Cross had prepared them.

SULLIVAN: He also doubts that their private conversation in his hotel room was private.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I couldn't feel entirely sure that our privacy was secure. I don't have any clue, but they could have bugged the place. It didn't feel nice to have that suspicion.

SULLIVAN: He knows that this was almost certainly the last time he'll see his 78-year-old brother. No one from any of the previous 20 reunions has been able to remain in contact with their family members, a reminder of the lingering distrust between the two countries even as a thaw in relations made this reunion possible after a three-year break.

KIM: (Through interpreter) When will the remaining 57,000 people get their chance at these family reunions? For them to be able to see their families before they die, something different must be done.

SULLIVAN: And saying goodbye knowing it really was goodbye, that was the hardest part.

KIM: (Through interpreter) We shook hands and got teary when we parted. The saddest moment was - when we boarded the bus and saw them waving outside, that moment was the hardest.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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