Photographers' Blog

Mementos of Korea’s divided families

Last month North and South Korea allowed a group of families divided by the Korean War to come together for a brief reunion. Separated on either side of the border between North and South, it was the first time they had seen each other in more than six decades.

Those who took part in the reunion knew that they were luckier than many others, who didn’t get to see their loved ones across the border at all. But they still had to go through the pain of parting all over again – more than likely forever – after their brief, tearful meeting.    

I wasn’t allowed to cover the families at the scene of the reunion. But the event made me wonder what it was like for those who returned to a normal life in South Korea after emotional gatherings with their long-lost parents, kids, and siblings from the North.

Some of the families who took part even thought their relatives had died in the 1950-53 war until they got their invitation to join the reunion. What did the reunited families talk about? Did they recognize each other with grey hair and wrinkles? What were the last words they said to each other before their goodbyes?

Wanting to know the answers to these questions, I obtained a list of participants in the latest reunions and began calling dozens of them. It was harder than I had imagined to arrange the interviews. I thought at first the families would be happy to talk in front of the camera. But after fulfilling a life-long dream of seeing their relatives in the North again, I found that many of these elderly Koreans appeared exhausted, and their emotions were spent.

Waiting on widow’s island

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.”

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