Ryu Young-shik of South Korea (left) and his nieces from the North share a tearful embrace on the first day of the family reunions at the Mount Geumgangsan resort on Thursday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
MOUNT GEUMGANGSAN, North Korea ― Hundreds of elderly Koreans from both sides of the border reunited Thursday at a North Korean mountain resort, embracing each other in tears after 60 years of separation.
Eighty-two South Koreans accompanied by 58 family members met about 180 relatives from the North in the first round of the six-day event. They will spend about 11 hours together in six sessions until Saturday.
In the first encounter at 3 p.m., the participants rushed into each other’s arms, stroking the withered faces and hands of their long lost kin and introducing their respective children.
“Sister, it’s me. Why can’t you recognize me?” Ri Jong-sil tearfully asked Lee Young-shil, her 88-year-old South Korean sister, who suffers from dementia.
For Jang Choon, 82, the event helped him not only reunite with his younger brother but also learn that his son and brother had the same occupation ― train driver.
“I promise I will come visit you again on my own train. You just stay healthy and live long,” said Jang’s son, Ki-woong, looking at his aged uncle and aunt.
Choi Nam-soon, 65, sat down with three half brothers and sisters on behalf of her deceased father, who was abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. But after being shown an old picture of their father, she said it was not the man she knew.
“But let’s think of each other as blood relations and have a good time until the event is over,” Choi said, inviting smiles from the North Koreans.
On Wednesday, the aged South Koreans received medical checkups and training for their much-awaited trip at a resort in Sokcho, Gangwon Province. Among them were two men on their way to meet their brothers who were taken to the North while fishing in the West Sea in the 1970s.
As they prepared to leave for Mount Geumgangsan, most participants appeared to be full of hope and somewhat nervous, with some weeping with emotion.
“If you’re crying already, what are you going to do when you actually see them?” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told Choi Jung-ho, 87, as he helped her on the bus.
Kim Sung-yoon, 96, waves as she departs from a resort in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, for Mount Geumgangsan in North Korea for the reunion of separated families on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Kim Sum-kyung, 91, and Hong Shin-ja, 84, crossed the border by ambulance.
“He was adamant that he would rather die at Mount Geumgangsan. … But we have to keep monitoring his condition (to see) if he can participate in all of the events,” a Red Cross official said of Kim, who traveled to meet his son and daughter in the North.
The Unification Ministry, Korean Red Cross and Hyundai Asan Corp. have been organizing the event for several weeks, clearing snow and repairing facilities that have been dormant for more than three years.
For three days starting Sunday, an additional 360 South Koreans will gather with 88 North Korean relatives for a second round of reunions.
The first family reunion since late 2010 came after the two Koreas held a rare high-level dialogue last week. During the talks, the North agreed to hold the reunions as scheduled, without taking issue with South Korea-U.S. military drills slated to begin on Feb. 24, which it calls a rehearsal for war.
“The reunions are the most important humanitarian project for us,” said Yoo Jung-geun, president of the (South) Korean Red Cross, at a reception dinner hosted by the North.
“We have no time. We should formulate measures to fundamentally resolve the issue as soon as possible.”
The separated families are becoming an ever more pressing issue because of their old age and waning health. Some have died, while others gave away their chance to participate in the reunions due to health problems this time around.
As of the end of 2013, only 71,480 were still alive of the 129,264 South Korean members of separated families registered since 1988, ministry data show. Of the survivors, more than 11 percent are in their 90s, 42 percent in their 80s and 29 percent in their 70s.
Since 1985, 18 face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings have taken place, involving more than 22,000 people from 4,380 families.
The program was suspended in the wake of Pyongyang’s sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery strike on a border island in the West Sea in 2010.
By Shin Hyon-hee and Joint Press Corps (firstname.lastname@example.org