Waiting on widow’s island

November 19, 2013

Geoje, South Korea

By Kim Hong-ji

After Germany was reunited in 1990, Korea has been the highest profile divided country in the world. The division has separated numerous families and made them miss each other. A few months ago, when the relationship between the two Koreas improved after five months of political tension, North Korea proposed a reunion ceremony for families who have been separated by the Korean War. Then it abruptly cancelled the ceremony, disappointing the families who have been waiting to reunite with long-lost relatives. Lots of separated families in the two Koreas are still living in great hope that they will be able to meet their loved ones some day.

Geoje island is a small and remote place in South Korea where 18 fisherman were abducted by North Korea while fishing in the disputed West Sea in December, 1972. Forty one years later, little is known about these husbands and sons, how they were abducted or where they may be living in North Korea. I only came to know about this incident when I heard one of the abducted fishermen, Jeon Wook-pyo, 68, escaped from North Korea and returned to South Korea a few months ago. I could not locate him and there is an ongoing investigation by the government. He was abducted 10 years before I was born and I had limited information to follow. Instead, I met a few grandmothers still living in a town heavy with grief for their lost family members. A widow who lost her husband and a mother who lost her child; just wishing they can be reunited in the town some day.

Kim Jeom-sun, 82, who lost her husband when he was abducted in 1972. She is now a grandmother living alone in a 10-square-yard house in Busan, east of the island. She left the island some twenty years ago due to the stigma – as if her husband was a betrayer who fled to the North. Much time has passed since then, but her memories stay with her. A few pictures hanging on the wall keep the memories lingering in her mind. “I have waited and waited until now.. even if he died in North Korea. I still wait for him.”

Ok Chul-soon, 82, also lost her husband, who was then the captain of Jeon’s vessel. She continued to live on the island after her husband was abducted in 1972. She also has only a few pictures of her husband. “After I applied for the family reunion, I bought a 18k gold necklace as a gift for him.” But a month later, she got a letter, which said that Park Doo-nam was dead. Park is the name of her husband.

Park Gyu-soon, 88, lost her two sons in the 1972 abduction. Ok showed us the way to Park’s house. It was a small and shabby house with a TV, a number of blankets and a small window. She met her son at a family reunion in 2003, but has not seen him since. She couldn’t. Her sons married in North Korea and have children. She said she cried so much that she ran out of tears. She cannot even imagine reuniting with them again. “What is the name of the North Korean President? Kim Jong-un? President Kim, would you please let me meet my son, Kim Tae-joon?” Kim is the name of her second son.

The dim memories of the abduction still remain in the heart of the grandmothers, even after 41 years.

The South Korean government says about 457 fishermen remain in the North since the end of the Korean War in 1953, which accounts for about 90 percent of the total South Koreans trapped in North Korea.

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