For some Korean families, a long-awaited reunion

Governments restart program after 3-year lapse

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SEOUL, South Korea -- They prepared for days in advance, picking out special dresses or suits, dusting off family photographs, gathering small gifts. They traveled by bus through the snowy countryside and over the demilitarized border into North Korea.

And there, at a mountain resort, a group of elderly South Koreans reunited with relatives they hadn't seen in six decades. Sisters met brothers. Fathers met daughters. One South Korean was so frail, he entered the ballroom on a stretcher.

Earlier Thursday, Kim Seom-gyeong, 91, arrived in an ambulance at Sokcho, a town in northeastern South Korea where the government gathered South Korean participants before taking them across the border.

"Even if I die, I will die in the Diamond Mountain," Mr. Kim was quoted as saying by the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Later, he met his son and daughter, the pool reports said.

The six-day family reunion begun Thursday marked a rare show of cooperation between the two Koreas, whose governments this month approved a new round of the humanitarian program after a three-year lapse.

Though it is unclear if the reunions will lead to a broader thaw, the resumption signaled that Pyongyang and Seoul at minimum have a shared interest in connecting long-lost relatives, whose separation is one of the enduring sorrows on this divided peninsula.

For many South Koreans attending the reunion, this chance to see their relatives is not just their first in decades, but likely their last. The 82 participants were chosen by computer-generated lottery from a waiting list of more than 70,000. The average age was 84. Many arrived with wheelchairs or canes, along with younger guardians.

Of those on the waiting list, 3,800 die each year without fulfilling their dreams. South Korea had originally chosen 100 people after the two governments agreed to reunions in August. But the deal quickly collapsed, and some have since died or have become too weak to make the trip across the border.

"Time is running out for all these elderly people," said Hong Soon-ho, whose mother, Heo Kyeong-ok, 86, reunited with a younger sister.

Many of the participants, upon seeing their relatives, quivered or fell to the ground. They held hands. They wailed. Eventually, they shared photos and told family stories, in moments captured by South Korean television networks, which broadcast the reunions live.

"I never knew it would take so long," Lee Sun-hyang, 88, told her North Korean brother Yun-geun, 71, according to South Korean media pool reports. Foreign reporters were not allowed to cover the event.

"Father's last wish in his deathbed was that I should look and find you," Kim Myeong-bok, 66, told his North Korean sister, Myeong-ja, 68, who was the only member of his family left in the North.

Lee Young-sil, 88, who has Alzheimer's, did not recognize her North Korean sister and daughter. A 93-year-old man named Kang Neung-hwan met the North Korean son born after he fled to the South.

The separation has been so long that some carried their prewar photos to help their siblings recognize them. They also packed photos of their hometowns, as well as underwear and other gifts for their relatives in the impoverished North.

Many of the 180 North Koreans wore traditional, colorful dresses, called hanboks; all wore state-mandated pins on their left breast. Analysts say North Koreans participating in the reunions are forbidden from criticizing their government.

The family meetings also provide glaring testimony to how far the two political systems have drifted apart.

During past reunions, relatives from the North showed far less emotion, at least while they were being watched by North Korean officials and media. They often puzzled their South Korean relatives by launching into long speeches praising their "great leader" and blaming the "American imperialists" for the Korean divide.

Two of those representing the North side Thursday were actually South Koreans; they were fishermen abducted by Pyongyang's agents during the 1970s and have lived in the North ever since. According to Seoul, more than 500 such South Korean abductees are still in North Korea, prevented from returning home. The North Korean government says anybody within its borders is there voluntarily.

Before and during the 1950-53 Korean War, more than a million Koreans crisscrossed the border, the result of a chaotic period in which some family members fled and waited for others to join them. Sometimes they left for financial or ideological reasons. Some wagered that they would find safety on the other side.

A cease-fire, though, created an impermeable zone in the center of the peninsula, an area strung with barbed wire and dotted with land mines. Because the war still technically continues -- the North and South didn't sign a treaty -- Koreans on both sides are banned from sending mail or making phone calls across the border. Restrictions are particularly strict in the North, where even domestic travel and communication is monitored by state security agents.

In an authoritative report released Monday on North Korean human rights abuses, a United Nations panel recommended that the North allow separated families to unite, "including by allowing citizens to travel or emigrate where they choose."

During a warmer period of inter-Korean relations, between 2000 and 2010, the North and South cooperated to hold 18 reunions. They attempted to resume the program last year, but the North called off the event at the eleventh hour.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye last month tried to restart negotiations, saying it was time for families to "find healing for their pain." This time around, the North accepted, then almost backed out.

North Korea's concern this time were upcoming, annual South Korea-United States joint military exercises, which it sees as an invasion prelude.

Both North and South finally pledged in high-level talks last week to proceed with reunions, in spite of the war games.

The New York Times contributed.

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