South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North With tensions easing between North and South Korea, the two sides are reviving cross-border reunions that began in 1985. On Monday, 93 South Koreans will board buses to visit relatives in the North.
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South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North

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South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North

South Koreans Prepare For Rare Family Reunions With Long-Lost Relatives In The North

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for this weekend's Long Listen - imagine living for nearly 70 years knowing your mom, dad, maybe brothers and sisters live just a few hours away across the most heavily fortified border in the world. Tensions are easing between North and South Korea. And the two sides are reviving cross-border reunions that have been on again, off again since 1985. NPR's Michael Sullivan brings us this look from Seoul at the latest reunifications. And I'll note it contains a brief but gruesome wartime memory.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The parking lot at South Korea's war museum is usually pretty empty but not this past Wednesday, National Liberation Day - a state holiday - when thousands flocked to the museum to learn about a brutal war that left nearly 3 million dead, wounded or missing in just three years.

SHING CHANG-MIN: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: Twenty-six-year-old Shing Chang-min came here with his girlfriend to learn about the history of the war. He says he doesn't know much about it - just a little from textbooks at school. What about your parents or grandparents? - I ask.

SHING: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: "I only see my grandparents briefly during holidays. And then we only discuss family issues," he says. "To be honest, I just realized I've never thought to ask them."

Eighty-two-year-old Ahn Seung-choon isn't family. But she could tell them plenty. She's one of the lucky ones who got the call to meet her brother in the North on Monday. Her memories of the war are vivid and awful and start with her mother screaming at her one early morning in August 1950 that her 17-year-old brother had just been taken by North Korean soldiers.

AHN SEUNG-CHOON: (Through interpreter) There were babies sleeping in the house, so she could not follow them for long and had to come back home. After that day, we didn't hear anything about my brother.

SULLIVAN: It got worse. The fighting that first winter was fierce - the family forced to flee to a relative's village, only to be forced out again. So they decided to go back home, hoping the fighting had ended there.

AHN: (Through interpreter) On the way back to our house, there was a mountain pass called Paektu (ph) in Pyongyang. And that's where the bombing started.

SULLIVAN: And kept going, she says, until, grazed by a bullet, she passed out.

AHN: (Through interpreter) In the evening, I woke up. All I smelled was shells and blood. I went around looking for my mom. But bodies were everywhere. And a mixture of snow, ice and human blood was flowing into a gutter. Then I saw a baby crying on the back of a body that was missing a head. I went closer and saw it was my baby sister on my mom's body.

SULLIVAN: She and her 11-year-old sister strapped their younger siblings to their backs and trekked for days before making it back to their village. The babies didn't survive. Ahn and her sister did - Ahn married, had six kids but always wondered what happened to her brother. Thirty years ago, she put her name on the list of people looking for their families then forgot about it until she got a phone call earlier this month saying she'd been chosen to meet her missing brother, only to get another call two days later saying he'd already died but had left the family.

AHN: (Through interpreter) It hurts to know that my brother has died. It makes me sad. I will never be able to see him now. But he left a son. And his wife is still alive.

SULLIVAN: And it's them she'll meet on Monday.

AHN: (Through interpreter) I should see my nephew before I die. He is my father's descendant. And he'll carry on my father's lineage. So I'm thankful for that.

YOON HEUNG-GYU: (Through interpreter) My name is Yoon Heung-gyu. I am 92 years old, and I'm a calligraphy teacher.

SULLIVAN: Yoon left his home in the North just before the war started. He was angry at the communists for seizing his family's home and moving them into a small hut. I hated them, he says.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I left the North with nothing. If you got caught with anything on you, you're doomed. You couldn't have anything that could be evidence, not even a picture.

SULLIVAN: His mother didn't want him to go. But they both believed the country would soon be reunited.

YOON: (Through interpreter) If I had known that the country would remain separated for this long, I would not have crossed the border.

SULLIVAN: He made his way south, made a life, served in the South Korean army and got married, all the time wondering what had become of his mother and his two younger siblings. Like Ahn Seung-choon, he registered for the reunion program decades ago, then pretty much gave up until he got the phone call.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I wasn't expecting it to happen. There are still more than 50,000 people waiting to meet their families. And how could I be selected as one of those going this time? It was like asking for the moon.

SULLIVAN: He hopes his sister will bring pictures of the family he hasn't seen for 70 years. He hopes he can keep it together, too, when they meet.

YOON: (Through interpreter) I will have to see if I cry or not. I would only find out when the moment comes.

KIM GWANG-HO: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: Kim Gwang-ho, 82, left his home in the North with four brothers in December 1950 in what was known as the January 4 retreat. They left behind his mother and a younger brother. He didn't say goodbye.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Of course, I regret it now. But everyone around us said there was no need to move the entire family since we would return shortly.

SULLIVAN: Kim settled in the South, became a doctor but never stopped wondering about his mother and the brother he left behind. He, too, applied years ago for the reunion program. And he, too, had pretty much forgotten about it until he got the call earlier this month.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I was surprised and happy. But especially surprising was that my 78-year-old brother is still alive. How could he reach the age of 78 in North Korea? The brothers I came to the South with all died before they turned 60. So I thought it was a miracle that he's still alive.

SULLIVAN: He says they have too much to talk about and too little time in the two days allowed but hopes there will be more opportunities in the future not just for him but for all those who've applied who aren't getting any younger.

KIM: (Through interpreter) One of the South Koreans going is over 100 years old - over 50 percent them in their 80s or older. If reunions don't happen faster, they will never be able to meet their families.

SULLIVAN: Kim hopes the thaw in relations between the two Koreas will hasten that process but says he's seen thaws followed by chills before. He says he has no intention of talking politics with his brother, even if it were allowed. There's too much to catch up on, he says. But I hope he brings pictures. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul.

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