Families separated by the Korean War more than 60 years ago held tearful reunions as the two Koreas seek to lower tensions that have remained high since the North detonated a nuclear device last February.
The visits of more than 80 South Koreans with family members in the North illustrated both the hope for reconciliation and the depth of the division between the two countries that bar their citizens from having contact with their loved ones.
“Let me hold you in my arms,” 92-year-old South Korean Kang Neung Hwan told his 63-year-old son from North Korea upon meeting him for the first time yesterday as the six-day reunions began.
The two men, both with stooped backs, cried as they clutched each other, according to pooled media reports from the Mount Geumgang resort in North Korea where the reunions are held. Kang didn’t find out until last year that his wife had been pregnant when he fled the North at the height of the 1950-53 war.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye has described the resumption of reunions, last held in 2010, as the starting point for improved relations with the North. Her government today approved a shipment of humanitarian aid worth 1 billion won ($932,000) from civilian relief groups to the North, the Unification Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
Last week, officials from the two countries met inside the heavily armed demilitarized zone for the first high-level talks in years. The reunions started despite North Korea’s earlier threat to pull out in protest over annual South Korean-U.S. military drills due to begin next week.
In the first round of the reunions, the South Koreans chosen to travel to Mount Geumgang will spend fewer than 72 hours with the loved ones they may never see again. In the second part of the reunions starting Sunday, North Koreans selected by their government will spend the same amount of time with relations from the South.
Millions of Koreans were separated from their families during the war, which ended in a truce and without a peace treaty. Only 1,700 South Koreans have been reunited with relatives through government efforts since 2000. A previous round due to be held in September was canceled by the Kim Jong Un regime just days before they were set to start.
Last week’s bilateral talks “opened up potential for a broad range of agreements, including one on a summit at some point,” Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said by phone.
Tours to North
North Korea is pushing for a revival of South Korean tours to Mount Geumgang. The resort once generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the cash-strapped regime before visits from the South were suspended over the death of a tourist shot by a North Korean guard in 2008.
South Korea is open to talks on the tours although the issue should not be tied to family reunions, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do told reporters Jan. 10.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains the biggest stumbling block to improved relations, Seoul University’s Chang said. The United Nations tightened economic sanctions against the North after it conducted its third nuclear test a year ago and the North then threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea cites a military threat from the U.S. for continuing its nuclear program and has demanded talks on a peace treaty with the U.S. before stopping its arms development. The U.S. and South Korea say the North must show signs it’s dismantling its nuclear program before they can agree to the restart of multinational negotiations last held in 2008.
The reunions coincide with U.S. and South Korea military exercises set to begin on Feb. 24. The North’s National Defense Commission led by Kim threatened to cancel the meetings earlier this month unless the exercises were annulled or delayed.
The start of the family visits also came a day after confirmation that John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary, had been detained in North Korea. The North has held another missionary, Korean-American Kenneth Bae, for more than a year and this month rescinded an invitation for a U.S. human rights envoy to travel to Pyongyang to discuss his release.
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