SEOUL — Lee Beom-ju, 86, had little to say at first.
“I am sorry, I am sorry,” he told his long-lost younger brother and sister in North Korea when he finally met them Thursday, during the first family reunions on the divided Korean Peninsula in more than three years.
Lee, now a South Korean citizen, fled the North in 1951 during the Korean War. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the peninsula still divided. Until Thursday, Lee had not seen his family since then, living with a sense of guilt for failing to look after them as the eldest son. Hwa-ja, the little sister he last saw 63 years ago, is now a 72-year-old grandmother.
“Grandfather told me to run, run and go to the south, away from the war, because I was his eldest grandson,” Lee said in tears, explaining to his sister and his brother, Yoon-ju, 67, why he had to leave them behind. “I am sorry.”
Lee was among 83 elderly South Koreans, including a 96-year-old grandmother, who crossed the border in buses and ambulances Thursday to meet 178 North Korean relatives at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea.
The rival governments agreed to the family reunions as their first serious gesture toward easing frayed ties and rebuilding trust after several years of high tensions caused by the North’s nuclear tests and armed provocations against the South.
The reunions bore witness to the pain that the long political divide on the peninsula has inflicted upon “separated families,” that were torn apart during the three-year war. Graying sons and sisters hugged and collapsed in tears on the laps of their parents and brothers, many of whom were so old and weak that they had to make the trip across the border in wheelchairs.
“I never knew it would take so long,” Lee Sun-hyang, 88, told her North Korean brother Yun-geun, 71, according to pool reports from the South Korean news media. Foreign reporters were not allowed to cover the event.
“Father’s last wish in his deathbed was that I should look and find you,” Kim Myeong-bok, 66, told his North Korean sister, Myeong-ja, 68, who was the only member of his family left in the North.
Lee Young-sil, 88, who has Alzheimer’s, did not recognize her North Korean sister and daughter. A 93-year-old man named Kang Neung-hwan met the North Korean son born after he fled to the South.
The separation has been so long that some carried their prewar photos to help their siblings recognize them. They also packed photos of their hometowns, as well as other gifts for their relatives in the impoverished North.
The family reunions are a highly emotional issue and a barometer of the status of relations on the peninsula. The two Koreas agreed to revive the humanitarian program last week after the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for improved relations with the South during his New Year’s Day speech.
But the family meetings also provide a glaring testimony to how far the two political systems have drifted apart. In the past six decades, a totalitarian regime has taken root in the North while the South evolved into a democracy and globalized economy.
During past reunions, relatives from the North showed far less emotion, at least while they were being watched by North Korean officials and media. They often puzzled their South Korean relatives by launching into long speeches praising their “great leader” and blaming the “American imperialists” for the Korean divide.
This week’s reunions last until Saturday. From Saturday to Monday, a separate group of 88 North Koreans will arrive in Diamond Mountain to meet 361 relatives who will travel from the South.
For these elderly people, the meetings will most likely be their last chance to see their relatives before they die. Their initial tearful joy is replaced by their heartbreak as they bid farewell at the end of the brief reunion.
In the past, sisters and daughters clung at the windows of the departing buses. Fathers told sons the dates of their grandparents’ death so they could continue the all-important Confucian rites of ancestral worship.
Millions of Koreans were separated from relatives when the peninsula was divided into the communist North and the pro-American South at the end of World War II in 1945.