dozens of elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades were reunited yesterday, weeping and embracing.
The reunions came during a rare easing of hostilities between the rival Koreas and are all the more poignant because the participants will part again in a few days, probably forever.
About 80 South Koreans travelled with their families to North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort to meet children, brothers, sisters, spouses and other relatives. Seoul had said about 180 North Koreans were expected.
South Korean TV showed old women in traditional brightly coloured hanbok dresses talking and hugging, families swapping photographs of relatives who couldn’t attend or had died. Two men in suits and ties wiped away tears, grasped each other by the necks and pressed their foreheads together as cameras flashed. One old man was wheeled in on a stretcher.
These meetings – the first in more than three years because of high tensions – are a vivid reminder that despite 60 years of animosity, misunderstanding, threats and occasional artillery exchanges, the world’s most heavily armed border divides a single people.
The reunion came too late for 90-year-old Seo Jeong-suk, who died in South Korea 15 days ago. Her daughter Kim Yong-ja, 68, sobbed as she handed her long-lost sister a framed photograph of Mrs Seo. Kim Yong Sil clasped the photo to her heart and said: “It’s mum’s photo.”
For some other families, aging and illness did not prevent the reunions but made them bittersweet.
“Sister, why can’t you hear me?” North Korean Ri Jong Sil, 84, asked 87-year-old Lee Young-sil, who has difficulty recognising people because of Alzheimer’s disease, according to South Korean media reports.
Tears flowed down Mrs Ri’s face as Lee’s daughter began sobbing, telling her mother: “Mum, it’s my aunt. It’s my aunt. She’s your sister.”
Ri Chol Ho, 77, from North Korea, used a piece of paper to communicate with his 81-year-old brother from South Korea, Lee Myeong-ho, who has a hearing problem.
He wrote: “Mother used to tell me that you would return home and buy me a pair of rubber shoes.”
These Koreans are the lucky few. Millions have been separated from loved ones by the tumult and bloodshed of the three-year Korean War that ended in 1953. During a previous period of inter-Korean rapprochement, about 22,000 Koreans had brief reunions – 18,000 in person and the others by video. None got a second chance, Seoul says.
The reunions were arranged after impoverished North Korea began calling recently for better ties with the South, in what analysts say is an attempt to win badly needed foreign investment and aid. The North, however, sent mixed signals by threatening to scrap the reunions to protest annual military drills between Seoul and Washington due to start on Monday.