A mother wails as she embraces a son she hasn’t seen since the 1950-53 Korean War. A woman weeps as she greets a grandfather she never got to know.
The scenes of Koreans meeting this week, likely for the last time before they die, are heart-breaking, but they often belie a highly political and tightly controlled event in which participants often struggle to have genuine conversations.
Much of the awkwardness centers on the defining fact of the Korean Peninsula: For decades it has been divided between the authoritarian North, originally backed by the Soviet Union and then, during the war, communist China, and the U.S.-backed capitalist South. Citizens from both nations, especially the elderly who remember the bitterness and bloodshed of the war, often wear their nationalism on their sleeves, and some South Koreans have complained that their relatives take every chance to score propaganda points for their authoritarian nation.
About 200 South Koreans and their family members crossed the border on Monday for three days of meetings with their North Korean relatives. The relatives have been given a total of 12 hours together, including three hours in private. Another 337 South Koreans and accompanying family members will participate in a second round of reunions from Friday to Sunday.
After the initial tears at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort, Cha Jae-geun, an 84-year-old South Korean, and his 50-year-old North Korean nephew began an awkward exchange Monday over the origins of the war that split their family apart and killed and injured millions.
The Koreas should “drive the Americans out,” said Cha Song Il, the nephew. He accused the United States of being unfaithful to the commitments of a June summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
The elder Cha reminded his nephew that it was North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, who triggered the war by ordering a sneak attack on the South in June 1950.
“That’s a lie,” the nephew replied, waving both hands. “The Korean War was something the Americans did. We fought against (our enemies) with our own strength.”
Cha Jae-geun smiled and quickly changed the subject, as South Korean officials urge their reunion participants to do if politics come up.
Some North Korean participants, who are reportedly chosen for the reunions based on their loyalty to their authoritarian rulers, were eager to show their government commendations to their South Korean relatives. In at least once case, this resulted in another awkward exchange.
Ju Yong Ae, a 52-year-old North Korean who came to meet her 86-year-old South Korean aunt, steadfastly refused when a South Korean official who had come to the North to help manage the meeting repeatedly asked her to put her “Kim Il Sung commendation,” a public service medal, below the table.
“How can you put down our supreme dignity?” Ju asked.
A North Korean official intervened, telling the South Korean official, “She’s just trying to show it to her family; leave her alone.”
After sleeping separately Monday night, the relatives had private meetings at hotel rooms on Tuesday morning before meeting again in group sessions later in the day. Tuesday’s exchanges were less emotional and more amicable than Monday’s.
During her first encounter Monday with her South Korean sister, Kim Sun Ok, 81, of the North wiped away her tears when she said, “Let’s live together even at least one minute after unification before we die.”
South Korean participants at past reunions have complained that the heavy monitoring presence of North Korean officials and intense media coverage made genuine conversations difficult or impossible.
The North sees the reunions as a crucial tool to win concessions from the South, but it has rejected the South’s demands to increase the number of reunions and the people participating in them. It uses the reunions for propaganda purposes, choosing participants based on loyalty and instructing them to praise the leadership during the meetings.
Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives. Past participants express frustration and anger that their final conversations with North Korean relatives included so little genuine conversation.
Choi Ho-seok, 83, said that his 76-year-old sister kept praising the North’s government when they met in 2015 under the watchful eyes of North Korean officials.
“There were things closer to our hearts that we couldn’t talk about because we were being watched closely at all times,” he said. “It would be painful if that’s the last time I get to see her.”