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A North and South Korean reunion ends in goodbyes
02:16 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Ahn Yoon-Joon fled North Korea decades ago to avoid military service in the communist nation

He's been applying for a reunion since programs began in the 1980s

Ahn finally got to be with his two younger sisters but wasn't prepared for the emotional fallout

Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

Ahn Yoon-Joon’s younger sisters were just children when he last saw them.

Now 85, he fled North Korea as a teenager to avoid being drafted into the military. For more than 60 years, he wondered whether his loved ones were still alive. He was desperate to see them again.

He had been consistently applying for a reunion ever since the program to bring together families separated by the Korean War began in the 1980s.

On Saturday, he finally got his wish.

Ahn Yoon-Sook, center, and her sons and family members.

His was one of fewer than 200 families selected for a rare reunion.

Read: North and South Korea agree to family reunions in October

He says he did not recognize his sister Ahn Yoon-Sook, 79, at first. But he knew it had to be her when he saw a familiar scar on her forehead – one that he gave her when they were play-fighting as children.

“I felt nothing but happiness,” he tells CNN.

Ahn Yoon-Ae, center, with her families.

The first thing he did was ask his sisters for forgiveness, because he left them alone to take care of the family. He says that should have been his responsibility.

Their response: tears.

Then, his sister Ahn Yoon-Ae, 72, told him, “Even though we did not have you, our great leader took us into his arms and provided a big house.”

Read more: Nearly 70 years on, North Korean escapee prepares for family reunion

‘I was careful with what I was saying’

Looking at the wrinkles on her face and the poor quality of her traditional Korean dress, Ahn suspected life had been a lot tougher for his little sister than she was able to admit in front of the North Korean monitors who were listening to every word.

“She looked so much older than she really is,” he says.

But he felt he could not talk about the real story of their lives or ask why their younger sister died at 33.

“I was afraid if I said something wrong, my sisters would face repercussions (from North Korean authorities),” he says. “That is why I was careful with what I was saying and what I was asking. There was not that much freedom.”

This is the first photo, taken more than 3 decades ago, that Ahn Yoon-Joon has seen of his parents since he fled North Korea.

He says he could only imagine the hardships his whole family faced over the decades on the other side of the border and the overwhelming feeling during the reunion was sadness.

“I would have felt better not knowing. After knowing, there is more sadness,” he says. “It would actually have been better not meeting them.”

After just a few hours together over a period of three days, it was time to say goodbye.

Ahn says knowing he will likely never see his sisters again made him even sadder.