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Siblings separated by Korean War meet after 59 years

By the CNN Wire Staff
North Koreans in a bus bid farewell to their South Korean relatives before they return to their home after a family reunion after being separated for 60 years following the North Korean War on November 1 in Mount Kumgang, North Korea.
North Koreans in a bus bid farewell to their South Korean relatives before they return to their home after a family reunion after being separated for 60 years following the North Korean War on November 1 in Mount Kumgang, North Korea.
  • Until last year, Kim Byung-ki thought his sister was dead
  • He had not seen her since she disappeared at age 15
  • The siblings were divided by the Korean War
  • The South Korean man reunited with his sibling over the weekend

(CNN) -- Kim Byung-ki has just seen his sister for the first time in 59 years, a sibling he thought was dead until last year. They reunited over the weekend for the first time since the Korean War tore apart their family.

Kim, his sister and Kim's son started crying immediately on seeing one another, said Kim's son, Kim Jong-hwa. They couldn't stop.

The family took part in family reunions that began October 30 and will end Friday at Mount Kumgang, the two Koreas' joint mountain resort in the North.

Many burst into tears at the reunions, which involve 100 people from each side. Elderly men in suits and women in traditional Korean silk hanbok dresses sat at numbered tables in a large restaurant. Some sat, spoke and exchanged photographs; others simply looked bewildered as they clutched hands and stared into faces unseen for six decades. The relatives have been separated from since the 1950-53 Korean War.

"After a while, my father said they need to stop crying and smile, so the memories of the meeting could be better. He said they should say goodbye smiling, not crying. It was hard to see that," Kim Jong-hwa said. Kim's father wasn't immediately available for comment.

"We were very happy to meet her and learn about how she had lived," Kim Jong-hwa said of his aunt. "I felt relieved to hear she had worked as a nurse and later became a doctor, that probably means she had a better life" than many North Koreans.

Video: Siblings separated by war to reunite

"Still, it broke my hear to see her and think of the difficulties she might have gone through," Kim said. "She told us that when the North and South Korean family meetings started, she was upset that no one in her family had looked for her," he said.

"It was a shock for us to hear she felt that way," Kim said. "We did our best to explain to her we thought she had died during the war and that we would have tried to look for her, had we known she was still out there. When she left, she said she understood, but I wondered what she really thought and how she really felt."

The elder Kim had not seen his sister since 1951, when she was 15 years old.

He was a police officer during the war and often was away from home. When he returned one day, "She was gone. I asked where she was and she had been kidnapped [by North Korean soldiers]. After that, we didn't know where she was," Kim said.

"My mother was just waiting for her to get back. She was old. She couldn't go out to look for her. Even if she wanted, she didn't even know where she could search," Kim added. "It was a vague hope. She wondered, will it be today? Will it be tomorrow? She just waited."

Kim's wife, Kwon Bong-sook, shared her memories of those traumatic years:

"All the family was alive then. Three generations lived at the house and people waited for her to come back."

"But time passed, we weren't able to think. There were shootings, bombs, the men went to the army. ... I didn't even know if my husband was alive."

"Life was hard then. That was how we lived then. My brother and my father were also gone. Everything was taken from us. We didn't have food."

"There were bombs. It was not a proper life. We just tried to survive. After this, we thought she died. We could have never imagined she survived."

Last year, the South Korean Kim got word through government channels that his sister was alive, in North Korea. No mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges exist between ordinary citizens across the Korean border, so the siblings pinned their hopes on the government-sanctioned reunions.

Millions of Koreans were divided by the war. It ended in a truce, but without a formal peace treaty. The prickly relationship between the countries has since had periodic conciliatory moves and flare-ups.

Some 80,000 South Koreans have registered with their government to join one of the infrequent reunions, but 40,000 people are thought to have passed away or given up hope, according to the South's Ministry of Unification. Numbers are unknown in the secretive North.

The first family reunions took place following a landmark summit between the two Koreas in 2000. Since then, 17,100 people representing 3,500 families have been reunited on 17 separate occasions.

Journalist Manisha Tank contributed to this report.