Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 13:45 UK

Korean family's tale of emotional reunion

With family reunions back on the agenda of North and South Korea, the BBC's John Sudworth catches up with a family he met in September, before they saw the sister separated in the North six decades ago and not seen since.

North Korean daughter Lee Hye-gyong (R) and her South Korean mother Kim Yu-jung at Mount Kumgang family reunions in North Korea - 29 September 2009
Mother and daughter, separated for decades by war, briefly reunited recently

The reunion programme began in the year 2000, but since then, only a fraction of the tens of thousands of Koreans on the waiting list have so far been allowed to take part.

Last month, after a two-year gap, the latest meeting of relatives from opposite sides of the border was held in the North Korean tourist resort at Mount Kumgang.

Just 200 families, 100 from each side, were given the chance to see their long-lost loved ones for the first time in more than half a century.

Lee Hye-gyong, now 75, was separated from her family and ended up in the North at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. This is the story of her reunion with her mother and siblings, as told by her younger sister, 62-year-old Lee Kyong-hee.

Long separation

For my family here in the South this was our first chance to see my sister after almost 60 years of separation.

There were five of us making the trip to the North.

My mother, who is now 100 years old, my two older sisters, my younger brother and me.

The South Korean family of Lee Hye-gyong, separated in the North during the Korean War
The family last saw eldest daughter Lee Hye-gyong in 1951

We all felt very excited and extremely lucky to be chosen for the reunion programme, although I was a little worried about my mother because of her age.

Before the trip to Mount Kumgang we were too busy preparing ourselves, and preparing gifts for my sister, to think about the emotional impact.

And the reunion itself was also very busy and left us little time to absorb what was happening.

Delayed impact

We had five reunion sessions in total, spending two hours with my sister each time, in addition to a one-hour farewell meeting.

The moment Hye-gyong entered the reunion hall I recognised her immediately even though she looks very different from what I remember about her appearance.

In helping North Korea I believe the South Korean government shouldn't expect the situation to change overnight.
Lee Kyong-hee

She was 16 years old when I last saw her; she is now 75.

And now she speaks with a little bit of a North Korean accent which is, of course, quite natural considering she has lived there for most of her life.

At first Hye-gyong and my two elder sisters cried a lot because they are closer in age and had spent their childhood together.

My younger brother and I cried too but we were perhaps a bit less emotional.

Hye-gyong asked my two elder sisters not to cry too much for my mother's sake.

Saving soldiers

She is older than us, and after she was separated from our family during the Korean war she told us that she has never stopped worrying.

She knew that my mother had little children and no one to help take care of us because, at this time, the war had also separated us from our father.

Lee Hye-gyong
Lee Hye-gyong was just 16 when was separated from her family

My sister began to talk about her life after our separation.

At just 16 years of age, in the middle of a terrible war, she found herself caring for wounded North Korean soldiers.

She withdrew with them ahead of the advancing South Korean and American troops, and cared for the injured all the way from Seoul to Pyongyang.

She left Seoul in March 1951 and arrived in Pyongyang in November of that same year.

We never saw her again, until now.

Very lonely

She told us that she had been injured in a bomb blast in 1952, but she made a full recovery, and that later she was recognised for her nursing work during the war.

She was chosen as a post-war rehabilitation worker, sent to school and eventually studied hygienic chemistry at university in Pyongyang.

She was assigned to work at the prestigious Chungang hospital and later became a medical doctor.

She told us that she had led a good and valuable life in the North, where she had a family of her own - a son, two daughters and six grandchildren.

Her husband worked as the head of a fisheries school in Kangnyong in South Hwanghae province, and that is where they have lived ever since their marriage in 1964.

But she said that her only problem is that she has been so very, very lonely.

After 60 years in the North she still thinks of us and of our old home in Seoul that she left behind, and she cries a lot.


I mentioned earlier that we did not have much time to think about the emotional impact before the reunion.

Kim Yu-jung
Kim Yu-jung says she thinks of her daughter every day

But afterwards it has been very difficult. I still feel numb and sad and for a while I couldn't resume my work.

I can't stop thinking of my sister and how she will be crying by herself again.

With my South Korean sisters and my brother I think that perhaps we are not revealing our emotions to each other because we have to worry about my mother.

But in fact she is more composed and reflective than we are.

She has been through so many things in her life and she seems to know how to control herself better than us.

German example

Some critics of the reunion programme suggest that these brief meetings are cruel.

In a sense I think that they are right, because after parting from my sister for the second time in our lives we have no way of knowing how she is, or how she is coping.

There is no way of even knowing if she arrived home safely.

My hope is that the governments of the two Koreas will consider allowing our nation's separated families to at least exchange letters.

There must be a way to solve this dreadful emotional and humanitarian problem, but I fear that the governments of both sides are putting political calculations first.

In this regard I think they should learn from the experience of the two Germanys before their reunification.

As you know, they had a programme of family reunions throughout the period of territorial division and the West provided a lot of assistance to the East.

In helping North Korea I believe the South Korean government shouldn't expect the situation to change overnight.

Even individuals can't change so fast - so how can we expect a country to do so?

Do I still hold out hope of seeing my sister again one day?

Yes, why shouldn't I hold on to this hope.

I don't know how, but I will find a way.

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