Mon, Oct 19, 2015 - Page 4 News List

Korean reunions offer last chance to say good-bye


The members of families split and then permanently separated by the Korean War carry many sad memories and stories, but few that are as unique and dramatic as Park Yun-dong’s.

One of the lucky South Koreans selected to take part in a rare family reunion to be held in North Korea this week, the 90-year-old is bracing for an emotional meeting with the family of his younger brother, who died four years ago.

“There won’t be another time. I’m old and I know we won’t be meeting each other again,” Park said in his small, neat apartment in Ansan, about 40km south of Seoul.

“I want to tell them how important it is that the two sides of the family don’t forget about each other,” he said. “And I want to them to know about the family history, about what happened to us.”

Millions of people were separated during the three-year Korean conflict, which sealed the division between the two nations. Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.

However, Park’s family history is very particular.

He is what is known as a “Sakhalin Korean” — a community whose ordeal began in the 1940s and outlasted both the Korean War and the Cold War that followed.

Park was born in 1925 in the county of Pyeongchang, now a well-known ski resort in the east of South Korea.

At the time, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule and when he was 18, Park was among 150,000 Koreans forced to relocate to Sakhalin — an island off the far eastern end of Russia — to work in coal mines and lumber yards providing raw materials to fuel Tokyo’s World War II efforts.

In the end, his entire family relocated, including his parents, three brothers and younger sister.

Days before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Soviet troops took over the island, and Park and his family found themselves under new administration.

The 43,000 or so Koreans who wanted to return home faced a dilemma as the Korean Peninsula was now divided along the 38th parallel into the Soviet-controlled North and US-controlled South.

As the division cemented with the Korean War, the plight of the Sakhalin Koreans became starker.

The Soviet Union had no diplomatic ties with South Korea and Seoul was wary of allowing back thousands of people whose loyalties might not be guaranteed.

“So, the only return option was to North Korea,” Park said.

And that was the option his younger brother took, moving to the North in 1960 to study medicine.

In the hope that the political winds would shift, the rest of the family stayed, embarking on what would turn into half a century of stateless exile on Sakhalin.

Only when the Soviet Union collapsed did things begin to change and Park, along with his two remaining brothers and sister, moved back to South Korea in 2000.

After his two brothers died, Park’s thoughts increasingly turned to his younger brother in North Korea who, he discovered through relatives who remained in Sakhalin, had qualified as a doctor and was married with a son and daughter.

“When I learned he had died, I got a pain in my chest that has stayed with me ever since,” Park said.

His brother’s children are now in their 40s and it is they who Park, accompanied by his sister, will meet this week at the reunion in North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort.

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