South Koreans who receive a letter from a long-lost relative in the North for the first time usually burst into tears out of pity at the plight of their relatives, says Kim Kyung-Jae of the Separated Family Union.
“Southerners think they know how bad the situation is there, but it’s a whole lot worse than it appears. Things that are trivial to us here in South Korea can be of great use there.”
“Relatives in the North ask us to send anything from rubber to used clothes, but what they want most is medicine for disease, mostly tuberculosis, and food to combat malnutrition.” Basic household items are also in demand. “Things that we have, like scissors and knives? They don’t have them,” said Kim.
The staff of the Separated Family Union try to bridge the gap using the postal systems of third countries or brokers. Brokers take about 30 percent commission if transferring money, and charge roughly $203 to deliver a 20-kilogram (44-pound) package through the Chinese post. Despite the high commission and the difficulties, families in the South keep sending packages because they make such a difference in the poverty-stricken North.
“The Northerners always send letters saying the small efforts and money we’ve put in here has made a big difference there,” said Kim.
Kim himself left the North in 1950, the first year of the Korean War, with all his brothers. But he had to leave his youngest sister behind. He was 19 and she was eight. “That’s the last time we saw or talked to each other until 1990, when I miraculously received her address (through an acquaintance allowed to visit the North) and we started exchanging letters,” said Kim.
“It’s unrealistic to hope the two Koreas will be unified while I’m alive,” he said. “But I long for freer communication between families because I want to help my sister and other families reunite.”