Reunited Korean families hold final farewell

Agence France-Presse

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On the third and last day of the reunion, 80 elderly South Koreans were allowed to meet with their Northern relatives for an hour before parting ways

REUNITED. Lee Young-Sill (R), a 87-year-old South Korean woman, meets with her North Korean sister Lee Jung-Sill (L) 84-year-old during the inter-Korean family reunions. Photo by Lee Ji-Eun/EPA

SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korean families held a final farewell Saturday, February 22, after they were reunited for the first time since war divided them 60 years ago, knowing they will almost certainly never be together again.

On the third and last day of their brief, emotionally-charged reunions, 80 elderly South Koreans were allowed to meet with their Northern relatives for an hour before parting ways.

The families, the first of two batches who are being allowed to meet with each other, have spent a total of 11 hours on six occasions together since Thursday, February 20, including mass meetings over meals and a private reunion without media TV cameras.

Southerner Kim Yong-Ja carried the portrait of her mother Seo Jeong-Suk, who died at the age of 90 just two weeks before the reunions, to a meeting with her sister from the North.

“Mother, this is Young-Sil whom you wanted to see so much,” she said as she held the portrait close to the face of her sister.

Kim Dong-Bin, 80, met his sisters and a brother from the North.

“I’m very happy to see you all. Stay healthy and see you again after reunification,” he said.

He gave them thick winter coats, pairs of boots and his own wristwatch.

Two other South Koreans had to cut their reunions short due to health issues, returning home Friday, February 21, via ambulances, a media pool report said.

One of the two was Kim Sung-Kyeong, 91.

“Thank you for surviving and living well,” he told his children from the North before he was wheeled away on a gurney into an ambulance Friday.

“I don’t have any regrets now. Please bury my remains in the hills at my hometown (in the North) when reunification comes,” he told his other son, whom he fathered in the South.

Political divide

Tens of millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the 1950-53 Korean War, which saw the frontline yo-yo from the south of the peninsula to the northern border with China and back again.

The chaos and devastation separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.

Because the conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.

Direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.

This week’s reunions, the first of their kind in three years, are widely being seen as a possible first step towards thawing cross-border ties.

Held at Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea near the heavily fortified inter-Korean border, they were only secured after intense negotiations.

They came after a rare concession from North Korea, which had originally threatened to cancel the event if the South and the United States pushed ahead with annual joint military drills that begin on Monday, February 24.

The moment the families came face-to-face for the first time saw some simply embracing and sobbing.

Others stared and stroked each other’s faces, seemingly unable to believe that they were in the same room.

The reunions were not entirely untainted, however. After the private meetings, some of the South Korean participants complained that politics had intruded.

“I was a bit worn out due to all their political comments,” said Choi Don-Myung after the three-hour meeting with her brother and his daughter.

Kim Dong-Bin, 81, said the two sisters he had come to see spent a substantial amount of time condemning the continued presence of US troops in South Korea.

“They heaped abuse on the US troops and said re-unification was only possible if they pull out,” Kim said.

In an apparent goodwill gesture, Seoul on Friday approved the shipment by two private aid groups for close to $1.0 million worth of tuberculosis medicine and powdered milk to North Korea.

With the South Korean group now returning home, 88 North Koreans are set to travel to Mount Kumgang to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday , February 23, to Tuesday, February 25.

No further reunions are scheduled.

The reunions program began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the numbers clamoring for a chance to participate have always far outstripped those actually selected.

For many people, time simply ran out. Last year alone, 3,800 elderly South Koreans who had applied for reunions passed away.

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