|Kwon Young-ja, who flew in from the U.S., bursts into tears as she reunites with her nephew from the North during the second round of reunions at the Mount Geumgangsan resort on Monday. (Joint Press Corps)|
MOUNT GEUMGANGSAN, North Korea ― Hundreds of South Koreans held tearful reunions Monday with North Korean relatives they had not seen since the 1950-53 Korean War as Seoul began its joint annual military exercises with Washington.
A total of 357 South Koreans met with 88 elderly North Korean relatives on the second of three days of family reunions at Mount Geumgangsan, a scenic resort on the North’s east coast.
The South and North Koreans exchanged gifts with each other during their private reunions in their hotel rooms, though the session was delayed for about 20 minutes as North Korea had to manually operate the elevators due to a power shortage.
The North has been using emergency generators to power its hotel for days, a sign of energy shortages in a country under international sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.
Jeon Kyung-sook, an 81-year-old from Seoul, said her elder brother from North Korea scolded her and her sister during the private session for bringing him clothes as a gift from the South.
Jeon shed tears as she recounted her reunion with her brother, who ended up in North Korea following the end of the Korean War.
Both Jeon and her sister burst into tears as they tightly held his withered hands and buried their faces in his chest later at their joint lunch session.
The reunions are the second set in a week. On Saturday, 80 elderly South Koreans, accompanied by 56 family members, returned home from the mountain resort after a first round of three-day reunions with their North Korean relatives.
The reunions ― which will end on Tuesday ― are a key part of a recent inter-Korean deal meant to improve bilateral relations that worsened last year due to the North’s third nuclear test and its threats of war against Seoul and Washington.
The latest reunions, the first since late 2010, came as Seoul and Washington launched their annual joint military exercises, which have been denounced by the North as a rehearsal for invasion.
The North had demanded that Seoul postpone the military exercises until after the reunions, but it later backed down, a rare concession that indicates that Pyongyang may be serious about mending fences with Seoul.
At the North’s resort, North Korean officials complained to their South Korean counterparts about the military exercises, though they held out the prospect of improved relations.
The rival Koreas have said the family reunions can serve as a first step toward improving cross-border relations.
“Can we suddenly meet and kiss after a row of more than three years?” a North Korean official asked to South Korean pool reporters, referring to years of tensions between the two Koreas.
He said the two Koreas need to hold each other’s hands as they seek to improve their relations.
The separated family members were meeting en masse at a banquet hall after holding private reunions and joint lunch at their hotels.
The South Koreans plan to return home on Tuesday after a series of reunion meetings with their long-lost relatives from North Korea for the first time in six decades.
There is no hope that they will meet again each other during their lifetime because the Korean War ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically in a state of war.
The division keeps ordinary citizens from the rival Koreas from meeting, making phone calls or sending letters or emails to each other, though some illegal channels exist.
In Seoul, South Korea proposed that the rival Koreas hold talks at a convenient time for the North to discuss Seoul’s aid offer designed to help contain the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the communist country in about three years, a government official said Monday.
Last week, South Korea allowed two private aid groups in Seoul to ship 1.06 billion won (US$988,000) worth of tuberculosis medicine and powdered milk to North Korea.
By Joing Press Corps