SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As her two North Korean daughters, both in their 70s, wailed outside her bus, 99-year-old Han Shin-ja pounded the windows from inside in despair, moving her lips to say “don’t cry” and “farewell.”
As her bus left for South Korea on Wednesday, Han’s daughters chased the moving vehicle before being stopped by a North Korean official, a predictable but no less heart-wrenching departure that’s likely to be the last time they saw their mother after decades of separation.
Han’s family was among hundreds of elderly Koreans who tearfully said their final goodbyes at the end of the first round of rare reunions between relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
About 200 South Koreans returned home after the end of three days of meetings with North Korean relatives at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. Another 337 South Koreans will participate in a second round of reunions from Friday to Sunday.
The first set of meetings created highly emotional images of relatives weeping, embracing and caressing each other in a rush of emotions in what’s likely to be the last time they see each other before they die. Many of the South Korean participants were war refugees who reunited with the siblings or infant children they left behind, many of whom are now into their 70s.
At their final lunch meeting on Wednesday, 91-year-old Lee Ki-soon initially seemed lost for words as he shared a glass of “soju,” a vodka-like alcohol loved in both Koreas, with his 75-year-old North Korean son.
Lee later told his son, Ri Kang Son, “I am not your fake father. You have a father.” Ri replied: “Be healthy and live long. Then we can meet again,” according to pool reports.
An Jong Sun, a 70-year-old North Korean, carefully fed her 100-year-old South Korean father food. In the same large meeting hall, Kim Byung-oh, 88, quietly wept as his 81-year-old North Korean sister tried to calm him down.
Nearby, Ri Chol, a 61-year-old North Korean, was also in tears as he grasped the hands of a 93-year-old South Korean grandmother he was only just getting to know.
“Don’t cry, Chol,” an equally emotional Kwon Seok told her grandson.
Han told her two North Korean daughters to eat a lot of “chap-ssal,” or sticky rice, for health. She told them she would always pray for their happiness and also for the future of her North Korean great-grandchildren she never got to see.
Some relatives exchanged their phone numbers and home addresses, although the Koreas since the end of the war have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border or contacting them without permission.
Shin Jae-cheon, a 92-year-old from the South Korean town of Gimpo, not far from the border, lamented that his 70-year-old North Korean sister lived about an hour’s drive away all these years.
“It will take 40 minutes for me to drive there,” Shin told his sister, Sin Kum Sun, who lives in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. “The bus that goes to my home is No. 8. No. 8. The No. 8 bus,” Shin added, expressing a wish for his sister to come visit one day.
After organizers aired an announcement that the reunions were officially over, Han and her daughters broke down. They wept, embraced each other and temporarily refused to leave their lunch table. Two North Korean officials politely separated Han from one of her daughters, 71-year-old Kim Kyong Yong, who kept holding on to one of Han’s arms.
After the South Koreans boarded the bus, workers brought steppers so that Han’s daughters could put their hands on the bus window, with Han doing the same on the inside of the glass.
After wiping off tears with a handkerchief, Kim looked up toward his sister, smiled and created a heart with his arms. His sister, Kim Sun Ok, made the same gesture outside the bus.
“Goodbye, oppa (older brother)! Goodbye, oppa!,” Kim Sun Ok cried as the bus rolled out of the resort.
Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives.
The latest reunions come after a three-year hiatus during which North Korea conducted three nuclear tests and multiple missile launches that demonstrated a potential capability to strike the U.S. mainland. Analysts say the North still has some work to do before those missiles are perfected, however. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shifted toward diplomacy in 2018 and has met South Korean President Moon Jae-in twice and also held a summit with President Donald Trump.
While Seoul has long pushed for more reunions, analysts say North Korea is reluctant because of fears that increasing their frequency will loosen its authoritarian control and relinquish a coveted bargaining chip.