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Red Cross gears up for inter-Korean family reunion

Posted September. 18, 2013 07:20,   


“Visiting my parents? I’ve already said sorry about that to my parents in Geumsan (South Chungcheong Province). We feel sorry about skipping an annual holiday and then, what would it be like for families who have waited for some 60 years since the separation during the Korean War?”

Heo Jeong-goo, the head of the inter-Korean team of Korean Red Cross, said at the headquarters on Monday, “After President Park Geun-hye proposed an inter-Korean family reunion in her commemorative speech on the Independence Day, we gave up weekends to complete the preparation process in a month, which generally takes more than 50 days.”

The two Koreas have exchanged the final list of families for the event. Red Cross has been busy answering to ringing phones all day. Many calls asked questions as it was finalizing the list of families who will attend the event among South Korean families requested by North Korea. Heo said, “I’d like to help my team members to take a day off during the Chuseok holidays, but we’re short of time because five members have to call families and introduce the process and confirm participants.”

Although it is physically challenging, the family reunion, which was resumed in three years, is welcome news to Red Cross employees as much as it is to separated families. The inter-Korean team in charge of family reunion is a popular department in the organization. Heo said, “Red Cross is engaged in a wide range of humanitarian activities across the world, but I’m proud of helping separated families as it is a unique experience which one can have only on the Korean peninsula.”

Song Je-won, who is new to this work, went to the truce village of Panmunjom to exchange the list of names with the North. Song was particularly fond of Kim Se-rin among candidates for the reunion.

“I called him and he said he cannot trust mail acceptance. So, he came to the Red Cross headquarters by himself. I was touched when he said, ‘My parents must have been dead. Instead, I want to meet my relatives so that they can deliver my message to the graves.’ As soon as I got the list from the North, I searched his name and found him. I was happy like a child.”

Working for separated families is not without challenges. Red Cross staff said when they have to say sorry to those who were not on the final list of the reunion, they feel sorry and even guilty. Song said, “When a man who was not on the list got mad and started begging, I got angry. I wiped out tears in the restroom after watching them leave with resignation.”

Oh Sang-eun, another member of the team, was with Cho Jang-geum until the end. When Cho visited the Red Cross office at the end of last month, she heard that she was not on the list and cried sitting on the floor. Oh said, “One of our jobs is to listening to their heartrending laments,” adding, “As many elderly people live alone without children, the inter-Korean team is the only place where separated families can talk about sadness.”

Heo, who has prepared for family reunions since 2004, said that as years go by, he feels sorry about not being able to help more people meet their families.

“My heart sinks whenever I no longer see elderly people who came to visit us each year. When I try to contact them, they turned out to have passed away. In some cases, people die a few months before North Korea seeks them. I really hope that family reunions can take place on a regular basis, if not the unification of the two Koreas.”