By Andrés Sánchez Braun
Paju, North Korea, Feb 12 (efe-epa).- North Korean defectors and families with roots in the North on Friday held the traditional Lunar New Year rites at the inter-Korean border in a gloomy atmosphere as the pandemic and the absence of any dialog has dampened their hopes of reunification.
The Imjingak park, 40 kilometers northeast of Seoul, is the most popular spot for holding the ceremony, although on Friday, the first day of the Korean lunar calendar, the number of attendees had dropped sharply compared to the last year due to the new coronavirus.
In 2020, South Korea had registered just two Covid infections by the New Year ceremony.
However, by early morning dozens of families had still gathered at the site, situated near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries, to perform the Charye ritual, honoring their ancestors on New Year.
Some attendees carried out prayers and made offerings on a large ceremonial table installed by local authorities, while others put up their own altars with traditional homemade food and drinks, with everyone facing the North, as mountains across the border are clearly visible on the other side of the Imjin river.
For many, this is the best way of feeling close to the land of their ancestors – who are very important in the Korean culture – in a peninsula which has remained divided for over 75 years.
Although in fewer numbers, the event was also attended by persons who have defected recently, such as Son Ju-han, who arrived in the South in 2016 leaving behind his wife and children.
Son has been unable to communicate with his family since then, and broke into tears while talking about them and his native land.
Others keep coming to pay homage to their lineage even though they were born in the South, while some, such as Hyeon Song-taek, have started coming only in recent years, decades after leaving the North.
Hyeon, who is accompanied by her South Korean son and grandchildren, was born in 1931 in Hamhung, the second biggest city of North Korea, and managed to reach the South at the age of 19 in the middle of the Korean War (1950-53), although her mother and sister were left behind.
“From Hamhung I managed to reach the nearby port of Hungnam, and was brought to the South by boat,” she told EFE, referring to the largest evacuation of North Korean civilians during the war, which coincided with the invasion of Chinese volunteers towards the end of 1950.
“Although I don’t know when I will die, I am 90 and I don’t think I have much time to see the place where I was born and my family again,” she said when asked if she wished for the two Koreas – technically still at war – to make peace and reunify, or at least allow the thousands of separated families to meet.
After a promising 2018, when leaders of the two countries held three bilateral summits, the deadlock in the discussions over the denuclearization of Pyongyang and stalled peace talks have once again shown how difficult it is to heal the inter-Korean strife.
Moreover, the pandemic has not only cast a shadow on the celebrations in the South but also put the North on the defensive, with Pyongyang closing its borders strictly in order to prevent an outbreak of the disease in the impoverished country, an action which has further complicated inter-border communication.
Kim Sang-bung, aged 91 and born in the South Pyongan province surrounding Pyongyang, did not have high hopes either and simply said that he would be “thrilled” to be able to return to his birthplace.
Kim had arrived in the South in 1945 – the year when Washington and Moscow decided to divide the peninsula in two – and like everyone else, has to be content by merely helplessly staring at the other side of the bridge to North Korea, which could have been crossed within minutes on foot in normal circumstances. EFE-EPA