Retired South Korean farmer Hwang Rae-ha would love to see his mother again, but nearly 70 years after he last set eyes on her, he says he would settle for a photograph.
“Too much time has passed by, and it is over now,” he told Reuters, standing near his home within sight of the North Korean border. “I don’t think she is alive.”
During the Korean War, which raged up and down the peninsula for three years, Hwang’s family fled here to Gyodong Island, in what is now South Korea.
But his mother returned to their home in the North to prepare for a hoped for peace and was caught on the northern side of the heavily fortified border that divided the two Koreas after the 1953 armistice.
Hwang, now 77, stayed on Gyodong Island, even building a home within sight of North Korea, hoping one day his mother would return.
So far, there has only been silence.
With tensions on the Korean peninsula easing, North and South Korea plan to revive the cross-border family reunions that were halted three years ago as concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs mounted.
More than 57,000 South Korean survivors are registered with the South Korean government, hoping for a shot at a brief meeting with loved ones.
Just 93 South Koreans and 88 North Koreans have been selected for a new round of reunions that will begin on August 20 at a resort in North Korea’s Mt Kumgang, a popular tourist region.
“I still cry whenever I talk about my family, I will probably cry again once I see them,” said 82-year-old Bae Soon-hui, who was picked to meet her sisters for the first time since the war. “I was utterly in shock after hearing that I was selected.”
Hwang, the retired farmer, was not one of the few picked for this new round of meetings.
“When can we meet our loved ones?” he asked. “After all of us are dead? 100 people per each event is just meaningless. There are 50,000 people waiting all over the country.”
His question is not entirely rhetorical.
Since 1988, 132,484 South Koreans have added their names to a government registry, hoping to reunite with their families.
But survivors of the war are aging rapidly, and 75,425 people on that list have already died, the vast majority without ever having seen their relatives again.
In a decade, most of the survivors – already in their 80s or 90s – will have died, said Cheong Seong-chang, Vice President of Research Planning at Seoul’s Sejong Institute.
“That is why the state-run reunion program is a matter of urgency, an extremely pressing matter,” he said.
Park Kyung-sun, 81, who lives in Goyang city near the North Korean border, didn’t want to wait on the government.
During a period of closer relations in the 2000s she unsuccessfully searched for her family during three tightly controlled tours in North Korea, once glimpsing her old home briefly from the window of a tour bus.
“All I wanted was to tell my mom how I lived, but she is dead now,” Park said. “I miss my brothers. It’s so hurtful leaving them behind.”
A lifetime of trauma
For many survivors the reunions offer the first details of their family’s fate following the war that left more than 1.2 million dead.
“I will probably ask them how they have been, and when mother died,” Bae said of her sisters. “That’s what I want to know.”
South and North Korea first agreed to hold reunions after a historic inter-Korea summit in 2000. The reunions were held every year until 2015.
Over that period, 2,046 people were picked by a computer which prioritizes them on factors including their age and family background.
Others are selected when their relatives in the North request a meeting.
“I could not believe it at first, I thought I was being scammed,” said Kim Hyun-sook, 91, describing her shock when her daughter and granddaughter in North Korea asked to meet her in 2015.
Many of those selected, however, say being torn away after seeing their relatives for only a few hours under the watchful eye of North Korean guards is a traumatic experience.
“When the time was up, I let go of my daughter’s hand, and went to the bus,” Kim said. “The moment I sat down, I could not speak.”
Kim said she wants to see her family again before she dies, but with North Korea still largely cut off from the rest of the world and those who have already had reunions ruled out of the selection process, that seems increasingly unlikely.
“She is alive, and I can’t see her anymore for the rest of my life, can you even imagine that?”