Lee Son-hyang, 88, (L) of South Korea and Lee Yoon Geun, 72 (R) of North Korea embrace during a reunion event for families divided by the two countries, at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea on February 20, 2014.
Several of the aging South Koreans selected for this week’s reunions had died or become too weak to make the trip to the North Korean resort on Thursday. One of them, Seo Jong-suk, 90, died on Feb. 5, the day the rival Korean governments agreed to the reunions. She knew of the deal when she was wheeled into a hospital for heart surgery that she did not survive.
On Friday, her North Korean daughter Kim Young-sil, 67, cried over her mother’s photo, which was brought by her South Korean sister, Kim Yong-ja, 68.
Twenty-five of the 82 who made the cross-border trip to Diamond Mountain on Thursday were in their 90s. Several were too ill to recognize the North Korean children they had wished to see before they died. Some were hard of hearing, forcing their North Korean children and siblings to communicate by writing.
A few were so frail that they could only meet their relatives while lying in ambulances. One of them, Kim Seom-gyeong, 91, had said he would go to Diamond Mountain to see his North Korean children even if he died there. He did make the trip and met his son and daughter. On Friday, South Korean media carried photos of the North Korean son, Kim Jin-chon, 66, leaning over Mr. Kim in the ambulance bed to catch his father’s last words.
But Mr. Kim and another South Korean, Hong Sin-ja, 84, had to cut their reunions short and were brought back to the South in their ambulances because of their failing health. Their reunions were scheduled to last through Saturday morning.
“I wish I could take her with me,” Ms. Hong was quoted as saying by South Korean media pool reports, referring to her North Korean sister, Yong-ok, 82. Ms. Hong traveled to Diamond Mountain 10 days after a back surgery.
“Please stay alive until reunification,” the North Korean sister said.
Another North Korean sister, Young-ja, 83, tried to grab the ambulance as it took her South Korean sister away.
Millions of Korean families were separated during the war. The rival governments have banned exchanges of letters, telephone calls or emails. Occasional reunions they arranged were about the only chance for separated families to meet relatives.
In each of the 19 rounds of reunions since 2000, only a few hundreds elderly Koreans were selected. South Korea chose them by lottery. Of those elderly South Koreans on a waiting list, 3,800 die each year. About 71,000 South Koreans — 53 percent of them 80 or older — remain on the waiting list.
Many of them have described being selected in the government lottery as winning their life’s last “jackpot.”