PAJU, South Korea, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Dozens of North Korean defectors and members of separated families made Lunar New Year offerings and prayed for reunification at a park near the DMZ on Friday in an annual event that was subdued this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and frosty relations between North and South.
A formal ceremony was canceled at Imjingak Park, the most popular location for the New Year rites, due to pandemic concerns.
Instead, an altar topped with fruits, snacks and alcohol was set up by local officials at a pavilion as families approached to bow deeply and light incense in memory of those they've left behind in North Korea.
For defector Son Ju-han, 68, it was his first time coming to Imjingak for the Lunar New Year, known as Seollal in Korea.
Tears filled his eyes as he looked across the border and talked about his wife and two children, who still live in North Korea.
"I'm happy that I was able to come to South Korea, but I feel very sad thinking about my family," said Son, who defected in 2016. He hometown is Kilju county in North Hamgyong province, but he had been working in the logging industry in Russia since 1993 before he fled to South Korea, he said.
More than 33,000 North Korean defectors live in the South, according to the Ministry of Unification, but only 229 arrived in 2020, due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, down from more than 1,000 in 2019.
Son said he has had no information about the family he left behind, but hoped he would be able to see them again.
"I pray we will have unification someday," he said.
Others, such as 91-year-old Hyeon Seong-taek, have been coming to the park for more than a decade.
Hyeon fled South from his hometown of Hamhung in North Korea as a 20-year-old during the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended in an armistice that left the peninsula divided and has kept Hyeon from seeing the parents and brother he left behind.
Hyeon brought his son and grandson to help him prepare a small offering on the ground near a fence overlooking the Imjin River, where he was able to kneel on the ground and drink an offering of soju to his long-lost relatives.
"I hope for unification," he said. "But I am old and don't know how long I'll be alive. I don't think I'll live to see it."
North and South Korea have held 20 family reunions since 2000, with the last one in August 2018.
More than 133,000 South Koreans have registered for the reunions, but only some 50,000 still are alive, according to data from the South's Ministry of Unification, and about 64% on the list are over the age of 80.
Unification Minister Lee In-young, who came to Imjingak on Friday to pay respects and briefly chat with separated families, said earlier this week that he is hoping to start reunions by video conferencing, claiming the South is ready to hold 40 reunions per day.
Relations on the Korean Peninsula became strained over the past several months, with North Korea cutting off all communication lines with the South and blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in June.
Kim Sang-bung, 92, who came to the South from South Pyongan province in North Korea in 1945, said he didn't know if he would live to see relations open up between the countries, but held out hope on this first day of the Lunar New Year.
"I dream of seeing my hometown again," he said.