‘Beautiful and heartbreaking’: N., South Koreans meet

Associated Press

Seoul, South Korea — As the Koreas prepare for their second and final round of reunions of families divided by the Korean War six decades ago, which begins Saturday and ends Monday, The Associated Press interviewed participants in the first three-day session at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea. Here, in his own words, is what South Korean Lee In-gyeong, 62, chairman of the Korean Boxing Federation, will remember about what is likely to be his last meeting with his uncle, North Korean Ri Hung Jong, 88:


“Before he died of stomach cancer, my father used to tell me about his younger brother, who had a great singing voice, was splendid with the guitar and won a few singing contests. He had dreamed of becoming a pop singer. Then one evening during the war, in 1950 … my uncle went out for a walk after dinner and never came back. The family desperately searched for him for months but didn’t hear a thing. We presumed he was dead.

“So we were shocked when we learned that my uncle was alive in North Korea and looking for us. His sister, who is now 80, fainted. His daughter, now 68, seemed dazed and unable to think clearly. We soon were busy buying and packing clothes, medicine and other gifts for my uncle, but it really didn’t sink in until our bus crossed the border and we began seeing North Korean soldiers. We wondered whether he was healthy. We wondered whether he remarried and had kids. We didn’t know what to expect.

“When he appeared at the door of the resort hall, he was in a wheelchair and holding a cane. I instantly cried. I had never seen him before, but he looked exactly like my father. His frame, the shape of his head, the resemblance was unmistakable. We embraced and cried.

“We spent most of the time sharing family stories: who was still alive, who died and what happened to them. My uncle said he remarried six years after arriving in North Korea, after giving up hope that he would ever return to his South Korean hometown, and had several children. He was sharp for a man his age, but said he was having mobility problems after falling out of a tree a few years ago. He didn’t seem to like the food prepared by the South Korean side during one of the receptions. He had never seen a tangerine before and asked me whether he was supposed to eat the skin.

“Our conversations improved when we moved to a hotel room, away from the reporters and cameras. My uncle told us how he had disappeared. Two North Korean soldiers held him at gunpoint as they tried to retreat from the Allied forces. They didn’t know the way back north and needed my uncle to guide them. My uncle was eventually put into a North Korean army truck and was never able to return home.

“On the last day, my uncle’s sister asked whether he remembered the songs he sang at the contests he had won. He said he did, and began to sing “Baekma River” and “The Serenade of Sadness.” The man could still sing. He hit every note. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking.

“It was painful to see him leave on the bus. We cried and tried to hold hands as long as we could. I kneeled down and gave him a traditional bow, and hugged him hard. … The reunions were a very happy experience for me, but it will be very painful if I never get to see him again.”