Bittersweet family reunions for North and South Koreans

Seoul: More than 100 South Koreans, many of them in wheelchairs, have crossed the world's most heavily fortified border to be reunited with family members living in the North whom they have not seen since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The reunions were held on Thursday after the North set aside a demand for the suspension of joint military drills by the South and the United States, which it had demanded as a pre-condition.

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North and South Korean families reunite

Reunions between separated families living in South and North Korea get underway.

At the Mount Kumgang resort just north of the border, long-lost relatives embraced with tears, joy and disbelief. Some failed to recognise family they have not seen in more than six decades. The South Korean group and the 180 North Korean relatives who went to meet them were scheduled to dine together, and more private reunions are planned for Friday. 

The South Koreans carried bags stuffed with gifts, ranging from basic medicines to framed family photos and packets of instant noodles. Some brought bags of fresh fruit, which they planned to offer in a joint prayer ceremony for their late parents.

Because the Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war, and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are banned.

Among the South Koreans was Jang Choon, an 81-year-old in a wheelchair who was dressed in the light-brown suit and maroon tie he had bought for the reunion with a brother and a sister living in the North.


"My youngest brother Ha-choon had not even started school when I last saw him," said Mr Jang, the eldest of four siblings, one of whom has died. "But now he's an old man like me."

The six days of family reunions take place under the cloud of a UN report on human rights abuses in North Korea, which investigators have said were comparable to Nazi-era atrocities. They have said North Korean security chiefs and possibly even leader Kim Jong-un should face international justice.

Pyongyang has rejected the report, describing it as a concoction by the US and its allies, Japan and the European Union. But the North appears to be willing to maintain a rapprochement with South Korea that may be crucial as it seeks food for its people.

The possibility of looming food shortages could have been a factor.

"Now it's almost March, when the new farming season must begin, and Kim Jong-un has no means to feed his people," said Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. "He must get outside help. But looking around, the US won't give him anything, China doesn't seem willing to give anything and then there's the UN human rights report pressuring him. The family reunions card is his last resort because he can't neglect his people."

The reunions used to be held roughly annually, but have not taken place since 2010 as tensions between the two Koreas spiralled after the South said the North sank one of its naval vessels. In later months, the North shelled a South Korean island and Pyongyang threatened nuclear attacks last year.

For many of those making the trip to Mount Kumgang, it will be the last chance to meet separated loved ones.

Of the 128,000 people registered in South Korea as coming from families that were torn apart by the Korean War, 44 per cent have already died and more than 80 per cent of survivors are over 70, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations.

There have been 18 family reunions since the first in 1985 and a total of 18,143 South and North Korean brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers have met.

The events have never been regular and the two Koreas have squabbled over the details of the events, such as the venue. After the first four, in which families travelled back and forth between Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea has insisted on hosting the events on its soil.

"The North fears exposing their people to the outside world so they want to shroud their people from looking at the South's successful way of life," said Professor Kim Kim Seok-hyang.

For the families, the politics are secondary.

"I swore to myself, I must not die before I meet my brother and sister," said Mr Jang. "I just cannot die with my eyes closed if I don't see them this time."

Reuters, AFP