Publicity Deters Some : Korean Families Reunited Amid Tears, Flashbulbs

Times Staff Writer

Kang Shin Cho, 46, a taxi driver, and his mother, Park Mal Im, 71, learned only five days ago that his brother, her eldest son, had survived the 1950-53 Korean War and was alive--in Communist North Korea.

On Saturday, they gathered for a reunion in a hotel banquet room here along with other relatives of the first ordinary North Korean citizens to visit the south since the war ended.

The mother had put on a light pink traditional Korean dress and had her hair done up in a bun to meet her son, Kang Shin Ik, 51.

“It is incredible! It is unbelievable! I did not know my first-born son was alive,” Park exclaimed.

But 10 minutes before the reunions arranged by the Red Cross societies of the two Koreas were to begin, North Korean officials announced that 15 of the 30 North Koreans whose relatives were waiting for them would not take part in the mass reunion. The announcement said that they did not want to meet relatives under the glare of TV lights and photographers’ flashbulbs in the presence of more than 200 journalists and officials.


South Korean Red Cross officials protested to no avail. And so, half an hour later, those North Koreans willing to meet their relatives in public began entering the room.

Kang and his mother watched the entrance anxiously.

They saw Soh Hyong Suk, 53, go to one of the numbered tables. There, he met his mother, Yu Myo Sul, 83, as TV cameras rolled and photographers flashed lights in Soh’s tearful face.

“Dear Mother, this is your eldest son, Soh Hyong Suk,” the North Korean college professor cried.

Yu, partially blind and hard of hearing, stared blankly.

“Here is the scar over my eye, mother, which you know I got from a stone when I was a child. I know how much you worried about it and tried so hard to get it cured,” Soh said, taking her hand and guiding it to his forehead.

Finally, she said, “I can’t picture your face but I remember your name.”

In tears, Soh cried, “What a tragedy 40 years has caused!”

Elsewhere in the room, cries broke out at a table here, another table there. A mob of journalists rushed to each in turn.

Oh Suk Hwan, 60, approached his father, Oh Chang Kun, 80, but found that his father did not recognize him. Only after talking about the son’s childhood did they hug each other. Both began sobbing.

The son apologized for “not serving you, father, at your side,” but told his father he is doing well as vice chairman of a metal workers’ union in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Learns Parents Dead

At another table, North Korean Li Un Koo, 51, embraced his uncle and, in tears, asked what had happened to his parents. The uncle, Kwon Oh Kyung, 55, told him that his parents are dead.

An announcement came over the public address system: “To give the families a private atmosphere, journalists are requested to move to the seats reserved for the press (at the side of the room).” No one paid heed.

Taxi driver Kang and his mother still waited, growing anxious.

Finally, 15 minutes after the reunions around them began, they learned that Kang Shin Ik was not coming. Nobody told them. They found out when a South Korean hostess removed the number stand from their table, taking away the only guidepost Kang Shin Ik could have used to find them.

They stayed for another half hour, keeping stoic expressions on their faces, but many other disappointed relatives showed emotion. Some wiped tears from their eyes. A lone middle-aged women in a traditional green silk dress fidgeted with a handkerchief in her hands. Another woman buried her face in her arms on the table.

Without public explanation, South Korean Red Cross officials had insisted that the reunions take place publicly. In the afternoon, however, the two Red Cross societies agreed to schedule private reunions today for the 15 North Koreans who did not take part Saturday.

A South Korean Red Cross official said that all 50 of the ordinary North Korean citizens who traveled here had listed relatives in the south, but that in 20 cases the relatives could not be located or had died in the intervening years when not even postal service was maintained between the hostile Koreas.

In Pyongyang, where the other half of the current exchange was taking place, there were family reunions Saturday for 20 of the 50 average South Korean citizens who traveled there Friday in the first such visits since the Korean peninsula was divided after World War II. They are to return home Monday.

In one of the Pyongyang reunions, all of which were held in private rooms in a hotel, Hong Song Chul, a former South Korean minister of home affairs, met his 67-year old elder sister, South Korean journalists reported.

Political Notes Struck

Some of the reunions in both the north and the south were marred by political discord.

A North Korean mother of a South Korean Protestant minister repeatedly asked him to stop “teaching an alien creed.” Another North Korean told his visiting brother from South Korea that they had been able to meet for the first time in 39 years “thanks to the great leader Kim Il Sung,” who has ruled North Korea throughout its 40-year history.

All of the North Koreans visiting Seoul wore Kim Il Sung badges, and one of them, upon learning that an aunt had emigrated to the United States, suddenly turned rigid and said: “So, she has been sold away!”

Soh, the son who had trouble getting his partly blind and hard-of-hearing mother to recognize him, interrupted his reunion to tell reporters that he was “deeply grateful to the beloved and great leader Kim Il Sung” for giving him a good education.