South Koreans meet relatives in North after decades apart

South Korean family reunification

"Do you have a son?"

Many brought gifts of clothing, medicine and food for their North Korean relatives, since anything deemed extravagant by Pyongyang was unlikely to pass muster.

The weeklong event, the first of its kind in almost three years, was arranged as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts amid a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Hugging the woman he'd last seen when he was 4, Ri showed his mother a photo of her late husband, who had stayed behind in North Korea with him after being separated from his wife while fleeing south. "Mother, this is how my father looked", Ri said. Kim Dal-in, 92, asked his sister, Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence.

About 132,600 Koreans were listed as separated from their families by the end of July. For many, the experience has already proven to be overwhelming.

"I don't know when he will die".

"How are you so old?"

"I never imagined this day would come", she told AFP.

Lee Soo-nam, 76, explains about photos showing his family members during an interview at his home in Seoul, South Korea.

The participants included the families of a prisoner of war and five people abducted by North Korean authorities during the conflict, though the six South Koreans they had hoped to meet had died.

Many of the South Korean participants are war refugees born in North Korea who will be meeting their siblings or the infant children they left behind, many of them now into their 70s.

She could only say "Ah" and "When I fled." before choking up with tears.

On seeing him however, there was no hesitation, and the two elderly Koreans embraced each other tightly, both in tears.

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"Oh brother, it will be great when reunification happens", she said.

Since 2000 the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions but most of the more than 130,000 Southerners who have signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died. Another 3,700 exchanged video messages with their North Korean relatives under a short-lived communication program from 2005 to 2007.

A group of 89 people, mostly elderly, were chosen, CNN reported, to travel from South Korea to North Korea and see relatives many hadn't even been in contact with since the armistice was signed in 1953.

"Whenever I saw pretty clothes, I always thought how cute they would look in them", she said.

The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations worsened.

The first such family reunion in nearly three years started on Monday when a group of 89 South Koreans crossed the border to meet their family members at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea.

Thousands of South Korean families were split during the Korean War, with family members estranged for decades - nearly 60,000 people had applied for the reunion.

Starting on Thursday, there will be a meeting of another 88 groups of relatives, 469 from the South and 128 from the North, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

South Korean Jo Do-jae (L), 75, meets with his North Korean sister Jo Soon Do (R), 89, during a separated family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast on August 20, 2018.

However, time is running out for many ageing family members.

Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip and doesn't want them expanded because they give its people better awareness of the outside world. "As a member of a divided family myself, I sympathize deeply with that sadness and pain".

In the last round of reunions in 2015, Kim Hyun-sook met her North Korean daughter and granddaughter, but felt they couldn't speak freely in front of her.

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