Photographers' Blog

Chuseok and the world’s last Cold War frontier

October 1, 2012

By Lee Jae-Won

Chuseok, or the Full-Moon Harvest Festival, also dubbed the Korean Thanksgiving is one of the country’s biggest traditional holidays. Nearly 30 million out of South Korea’s population of 50 million will visit their hometown during the three-day holiday which ended October 1.

The Imjingak pavilion, a well-known tourist destination, is located just south of the demilitarized zone which divides the Korean peninsula into the capitalist South and communist North. It is the closest point to the inter-Korean border, where visitors are allowed to observe the North’s territory from the South without any specific government approval. The northern tip of the Paju city which the Imjingak area belongs to is only 130 miles south of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

South Koreans who were born in North Korea before the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce pact, not a peace treaty, come to the Imjingak pavilion to remember and pay tribute to their ancestors as they are banned from crossing the inter-Korean border freely to visit their hometowns in the North.

The number of South Koreans registered with the government as separated families was more than 80,000 as of September 2012. North Korean defectors who recently arrived in the South also visit the pavilion to pay homage to their deceased ancestors. The number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea now exceeds 24,000.

In June, 2000, then South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il held a historic inter-Korean summit in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The two Koreas have held more than twelve rounds of family reunions since that summit. Nearly 22,000 separated family members from both Koreas, who had not seen each other since the Korean War, have met through the reunion sessions their governments organized mainly around traditional holiday seasons.

However, the yearly family reunion event was halted after South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s government framed a hard-line policy toward the North and Pyongyang harshly denounced it.

Ko Ju-Rak, former teacher in North Korea

Ko was born in the Kabsan county, South Hamkyong Province, North Korea in 1928. He was a middle school teacher before and during the Korean War. He was being carried by a North Korean military truck retreating toward the north in late 1950 but jumped off the truck at night. He later joined a group of refugees moving to the South, leaving his parents and nine siblings in the North. He then joined the South Korean army to take part in the war. Ko has not applied for the inter-Korean family reunion. He wishes to meet his North Korean family members but says he is afraid that his application could be against the interests of his family members still living in the North.

Kim Byong-Jo, former soldier of the Korean People’s Army

Kim was born in 1937 in the Yongkang county, South Pyongan Province in North Korea. He was a teenage recruit with the North Korean army when he finished his daily sentry duty at night in Kosong, Gangwon Province, near the inter-Korean border, and crossed the demilitarized zone into the South. The date was August 26, 1953. It was just a month after the U.S.-led United Nations and North Korea agreed on a cease-fire on July 27, 1953. He had brothers, who had joined the North Korean army and died during the Korean War, a sister and parents before he escaped the North. He later joined the South Korean army. He has not applied for the inter-Korean family reunion programme because he realised that North Korea would never allow him, a deserter, to meet his family members living in the North.

Ko Yong-Yeon, former North Korean farmer and driver.

Ko Yong-Yeon was born in 1922 in the Taedong county, South Pyongan Province in North Korea. He was a farmer and driver in Pyongyang before he and his younger brother came to South Korea in late 1950, leaving their parents and other brothers in the North. They at that time thought their separation would not be so long but they could not return to their home after the Korean War. Ko settled in the South’s second largest city of Busan, but passed away recently. Ko’s son In-soo, who was born in South Korea, visited Imjingak marking Chuseok with his father’s portrait to show him the northern soil he missed so much.

The Koreans, who were separated with their family members and could not see each other during and after the Korean War, are getting aged. Many of them have passed away without seeing their loved ones during the last six decades since the outbreak of the Korean War.

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