Ninety-seven South Koreans crossed a heavily armed border today to meet family members in the communist North in fleeting reunions arranged by the rivals split by war and ideology more than half a century ago. The two Koreas began reunions in 2000 for the hundreds of thousands of divided families but the events have been on hold for about two years because of political tension, denying many Koreans their dying wish to see relatives they left behind.
Most of the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans looking for lost family members in the North are 70 or older, meaning time is running out. The reunion at the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang was an outpouring of sorrow, joy and relief as family members lost for more than half a century were reunited. "Don't you have anything to say to me?" said Chung Dae-chun, who at 95 is the oldest person to be taking part in the three-day event, as he was reunited with his son, who is hearing-impaired and appeared older than his trim and alert father.
Destitute North Korea, stung by UN sanctions triggered by nuclear and missile tests, has in recent months reached out to the South, once a major aid donor, proposing renewed business ties and resuming the emotionally charged reunions. The 97 South Koreans are meeting 240 North Korean sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters in Mount Kumgang just miles from the border on the peninsula's east coast.
Ninety-nine North Koreans who sought relatives in the South will follow in another three days of reunions meeting 449 who will travel from the South. The weekend event included the reunion of two people who were abducted by the North after the war and one prisoner of war captured and held in the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. "Don't cry. What's there to cry about when we are all doing well like this?" said Yoon Jung-hwa to her sister-in-law who was meeting her brother whose fishing vessel was abducted 22 years ago by the North off the west coast.
The North has refused to acknowledge the plight of more than 1,000 civilians and prisoners of war believed to be alive in the North but allowed some to take part in the reunions. There have been 16 rounds of family reunions for about 16,000 people from both the South and the North since they began in 2000 after a landmark summit between the rivals' leaders that year that led to a rapid warming of ties.
The two have also set up closed-circuit television links for video reunions. The reunions were supposed to be a show of goodwill on the part of both sides but have been held hostage to the whims of North Korea, which has suspended them in fits of anger and to increase pressure on Seoul to bend to its demands. Thousands of South Koreans who applied to take part in reunions when the chance was first offered about a decade ago have died before their wish could be granted.