Father and son share a drink for the first and perhaps last time at reunion of divided families

Posted on : 2018-08-23 16:42 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
A bottle of soju to bridge a gap of almost 70 years
One the final day of the first round of divided family reunions at Mt. Kumgang Hotel in North Korea
One the final day of the first round of divided family reunions at Mt. Kumgang Hotel in North Korea

As soon as 91-year-old Lee Gi-sun got up on the morning of Aug. 22, he pulled out one of the bottles of soju, a potent distilled liquor, that he’d stashed in the bottom of his suitcase. He’d brought this precious liquor to accompany a ceremony for which he’d waited his entire life – a daytime drink with his son!

At 10 am on Aug. 22, the final day of the three-day reunion for families divided by the Korean War, family members met in the banquet hall on the second floor of the Mt. Kumgang Hotel to say their goodbyes. A few hours hence, they would return to their respective homes in South and North Korea, with no guarantee of seeing each other again.

The father filled a cup with the soju he’d brought. After taking a sip himself, he silently passed the cup to his son. Gi-sun’s North Korean son, Gang-son (69 years old himself), was also silent as he took the cup and brought it to his lips. This was the first drink shared by the white-haired father and son, and it very well might be their last. It was a heartrending moment when the father’s lifelong dream came true.

“We were separated when he was two years old. Two years old,” the father said, letting the last phrase linger in the air. In Jan. 1951, he and his older brother had left their families behind in their home of Yonbaek County, Hwanghae Province, fleeing south with UN troops beaten back by the Chinese onslaught. Gi-sun had assumed he would soon be able to return.

Gi-sun has long been a drinker of soju, and he still downs half a bottle or so every day. The excuse he gave everyone except his close family and friends was that he enjoyed drinking. The fact was, however, that there was no other way to medicate the pain deep in his heart.

Before heading to Mt. Kumgang, Gi-sun had been asked by reporters how he would be able to recognize his son. “If it’s really my son,” he said with a smile, “it will only take a single question to figure it out – I just have to ask whether he likes his booze.”

Despite the nearly seven decades spent apart, Gi-sun’s son was the split image of his father. It wasn’t just a physical resemblance, however; they even looked the same when they were snacking on apples alongside their drinks. After the two polished off the soju that the father had brought, the son filled his father’s cup with some blueberry wine on the table. Soju and then blueberry wine – that’s how the two tipplers will remember each other. It’s a memory that will last longer than a photograph.

The father and son didn’t have much of a conversation, but this didn’t create any awkwardness. From time to time, Gi-sun would chuckle to himself. He was grateful that the two-year-old son he’d left behind had lived a good life. He was sorry he’d done nothing for his son for nearly 70 years. But even so, he was glad they were able to share a drink like this.

The reunion at Mt. Kumgang had ended, and now the time had come to really say goodbye.

“I’m not a fake,” Gi-sun, as he embraced his son. “You have a dad.”

“Stay alive, Dad. That way we can meet again,” Gang-son said.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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