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Oct 20, 2015 10:28 PM

Koreans continue reunions across DMZ, 1st in more than year

The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Tears run down the deeply wrinkled face of the North Korean man in the wheelchair as he embraces his now elderly South Korean daughter for the first time since she was two. An 88-year-old South Korean woman looks on with an expression of shock as she sees her North Korean husband for the first time since war drove them apart more than six decades ago.

As the rival Koreas on Wednesday continue their brief reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 fighting, dramas like this are everywhere at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort.

Ri Hung Jong, 88, on Tuesday had no words as he gazed at his daughter, Lee Jeong-sook, 68. She had been raised in South Korea since being separated from her father during the war. Ri simply wept in silence as his daughter touched his face and smiled.

About 390 South Koreans traveled Tuesday to the mountain resort to reunite with their relatives for three days. In a second round of reunions, from Saturday until Monday, about 250 South Koreans are to reunite with about 190 North Korean relatives. Dressed in business suits, formal dresses and traditional hanbok, they brought long johns, medicine, parkas, calligraphy works and cash to give as presents to about 140 family members in the North.

The reunions, as always, are a mixture of high emotion and media frenzy. Some of the participants were speechless around the reporters and the flashing cameras. Journalists crowded around South Korean Lee Ok-yeon, 88, as she reunited with her husband, Chae Hun Sik, for the first time in 65 years. She lives in the same house her husband, also now 88, built and that the couple shared as newlyweds. Both appeared to be in shock at the reunion.

"Father, why can't you say anything? Didn't you tell me you had a lot to say?" Kang Mi Yong, Chae's North Korean daughter-in-law, asked Chae as he struggled for words.

The images are broadcast throughout South Korea, where the reunions are big news. North Korea's government worries that scenes of affluent South Koreans might influence its grip on power, analysts say. In a typical piece of propaganda, Pyongyang published a report about the reunions through its state media that said the North Korean participants explained to their South Korean relatives how their lives have been "happy" and "worthwhile" under the North's socialist system.

The deep emotions stem partly from the elderly reuniting after decades spent apart, partly from the knowledge that this will be their only chance. None of the past participants has had a second reunion.

At a table covered with a white cloth, bottled water and soft drinks and a vase of flowers, South Korean Kim Bock-rack wept as he clasped the hands of his sister as a cameraman silently filmed.

South Korean Lee Soon-kyu, 85, reunited with her North Korean husband, Oh In Se, 83. As camera flashes bathed them in glaring white light, she cocked her head and looked with amazement at Oh, who wore a dapper suit and hat and craned backward to take in Lee

The reunions are a poignant yet bitter reminder that the Korean Peninsula is still in a technical state of war because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The Koreas bar ordinary citizens from visiting relatives living on the other side of the border and even from exchanging letters, phone calls and emails without permission.

North and South agreed in August to resume family reunions during talks to end a standoff that began when land mine blasts blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers.

South Korea uses a computerized lottery system to pick participants while North Korea reportedly chooses based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership. Nearly half of the 130,410 South Koreans who have applied to attend a reunion have died.

Seoul has long called for a big increase in the number of people taking part in reunions and holding them more regularly. But North Korea has only occasionally agreed to the reunions, which analysts say Pyongyang uses as a bargaining chip in negotiations with South Korea.


Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.


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