SOKCHO, South Korea (AFP) — With tears and cries, dozens of elderly and frail South and North Korean family members met on Monday for the first time since the peninsula, and their relationships, were torn apart by war nearly 70 years ago.
Clasping one another, they tried to bridge the decades of separation through precious physical contact and by showing each other pictures of their relatives.
Many of the North Korean women were clad in traditional dresses, known as hanbok in the South and joseon-ot in the North, and all had the ubiquitous badges of the North’s founder Kim Il Sung or his son and successor Kim Jong Il, while the Southerners wore their best suits.
As soon as 99-year-old South Korean Han Shin-ja approached their table, her two daughters — aged 69 and 72 — bowed their heads deeply towards her and burst into tears.
Han also broke down, rubbing her cheeks against theirs and holding their hands tightly.
“When I fled during the war…” she began, choking back tears as if she were about to apologize for leaving them behind.
Millions of people were swept apart by the 1950-53 Korean War, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children and husbands and wives.
Hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war and the peninsula split by the impenetrable Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with all direct civilian exchanges — even mundane family news — banned.
The three-day reunion at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort in North Korea, is the first for three years and follows a diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.
According to pool reports, the event began with a popular North Korean song “Nice to meet you” — also well known in the South — blaring out from speakers.
‘Never imagined this day would come’
Lee Keum-seom, now tiny and frail at 92, met her son for the first time since she and her infant daughter were separated from him and her husband as they fled.
At the time Ri Sang Chol was aged just four. Lee shouted his name when she saw the now 71-year-old, before hugging him as both were overcome with emotion.
Her son showed her pictures of his family in the North — including her late husband — telling her: “This is a photo of father.”
Before leaving for the meeting, Lee told AFP: “I never imagined this day would come. I didn’t even know if he was alive or not.”
With time taking its toll, such parent-child reunions have become rare.
Since 2000 the two nations have held 20 rounds of reunions but most of the more than 130,000 Southerners who signed up for a reunion since the events began have since died.
More than half the survivors are over 80, with this year’s oldest participant Baik Sung-kyu aged 101.
South Korean Park Ki-dong, 82, met his two North Korean siblings, who had brought dozens of family photos with them.
Pak Sam Dong pointed at one of the images, telling his brother: “This is you.”
The older man stared at the picture silently, deep in thought, while his North Korean sister quietly wiped tears from her eyes.
The reunions are resuming after a three-year hiatus as the North accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and relations worsened.
But after a rapid diplomatic thaw the North’s leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to restart them at their first summit in April in the DMZ.
The two Koreas have since discussed cooperation in various fields at meetings between officials.
But while Kim and US President Donald Trump held a landmark summit in Singapore in June, Pyongyang has yet to make clear what concessions it is willing to make on its nuclear arsenal, while Washington is looking to maintain sanctions pressure on it.
Families at previous reunions have often found it a bittersweet experience, with some complaining about the short time they were allowed together and others lamenting the ideological gaps between them after decades apart.
Some of those selected for this year’s reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and they could only meet more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.
Over the next three days, the 89 families will spend only about 11 hours together, mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents.
They will have only three hours in private before they are separated once again on Wednesday, in all likelihood for the final time.