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Family reunions end with hopes for reunification

MOUNT GEUMGANGSAN, North Korea -- The three-day reunions for the members of 90 families, separated by the border, ended Monday with overwhelming sadness and dim hopes that reunification would happen during their lifetime.
Separated familities bid farewell as South Korean members leave for home at the end of their reunions in Mount Geumgangsan Monday. (Yonhap)
Separated familities bid farewell as South Korean members leave for home at the end of their reunions in Mount Geumgangsan Monday. (Yonhap)

Many of the participants, mostly in their 80s and 90s, broke down in tears as their loved ones were led to board their homebound buses that would separate them once again with no promises of further contact.

“My father, you should live until you turn 130. I will live until 100 (so that we can meet again),” said Ri Dong-wook, 70, from the North said as he was forced to bid farewell to his 98-year-old father Lee Seok-ju from the South.

“Thank you for saying that. But I am not sure if I can live that long,” a grim-faced Lee told his son.

Seok Byeong-jun, 94, from the South spent the last several minutes of the farewell consoling his 75-year-old daughter Seok Bo-na, encouraging her to live well in the communist state.

“Would it be possible? Will we be able to meet again?” the daughter said, wiping away tears.

Lee Seon-kyun, 90, from the South gave his 78-year-old sister Ri Yong-sun a handkerchief on which her family members from the South wrote a message.

“Thank you for keeping the history of our family. Stay healthy and lead a happy life. We all hope to be reunited again,” Lee’s family said in the message.

The family reunions, which took place for the first time since February 2014, were held in two separate rounds at the scenic resort on the North’s east coast.

The second round of family reunions was attended by 245 people from the South and 188 from the North. In the first round, 389 people from the South and 140 from the North participated.

The reunions were possible as part of a comprehensive agreement on Aug. 25 to defuse cross-border tensions, enhance inter-Korean relations and bolster civil-sector exchanges.

Attention is now turning to when the two Koreas will hold government talks to discuss a range of issues including holding family reunions on a regular basis and expanding cooperation and exchanges.

Under the Aug. 25 deal, the two sides agreed to hold bilateral talks in Seoul or Pyongyang as soon as possible to discuss ways to improve cross-border ties.

During the family reunions, North Korean officials indicated their will to address the issue of separated families and enhance inter-Korean relations.

Ri Chung-bok, the North’s leading organizer of family reunions, said last week that Pyongyang’s “consistent position” was to enhance inter-Korean relations. Other Pyongyang officials said that after the reunions were over, they would pursue Red Cross talks to discuss ways to allow separated families to meet on a regular basis or exchange letters.

Seoul has regarded the issue of the separated families as an urgent humanitarian one, as many family members pass away due to old age each year. It is presumed that more than 60,000 people, including more than 1,000 South Korean nationals abroad, are still alive.

By Song Sang-ho and Joint Press Corps (