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September 27, 2009

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Emotional returns for aging Koreans

LEE Sun-ok fled from North to South Korea to escape chaotic fighting during the Korean War, boarding a ship with thousands of other people in December 1950. There was no time to say goodbye to her loved ones.

The 80-year-old widow arrived in North Korea yesterday to meet two younger sisters and one younger brother for the first time in 60 years.

"I never thought I could see them again," an emotional Lee said on Wednesday. "I can die after visiting the North with no regrets."

Lee is among about 200 families from both sides scheduled to hold six days of reunions with relatives they have not seen since the war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, in 1953, leaving the countries divided.

More than 120 South Koreans, most in their 70s or older, arrived at the Diamond Mountain resort on North Korea's east coast yesterday for the reunions, according to the Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs.

Millions of families remain separated following the Korean peninsula's division in 1945 and the ensuing civil war. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens from the two Koreas. Nor can they travel to the other side of the peninsula without government approval.

Family reunions began in 2000 following a landmark inter-Korean summit, but North Korea cut off most such programs after South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with a get-tough policy of holding North Korea accountable to its nuclear disarmament pledges.

The reunions were last held in October 2007. North Korea agreed last month to resume them as part of moves to reach out to South Korea and the United States after months of tension over its nuclear and missile programs.

So far, more than 16,200 Koreans have held temporary face-to-face reunions with relatives since they began. Some 3,740 others have seen relatives in video reunions.

The meetings come amid growing international pressure on the North Korea government to abandon its nuclear weapons programs and return to stalled disarmament talks.

North Korea boycotted the six-nation nuclear talks in April to protest world criticism of a rocket launch it carried out, but its leader Kim Jong Il has reportedly expressed interest in "bilateral and multilateral talks," indicating the North could rejoin the nuclear negotiations involving the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

The reunions last through to October 1 and it remains unclear when they will be held again. They are a highly emotional issue in the Koreas. Most of those applying to see their long lost loved ones are in their 70s or older. Of 127,400 South Koreans who applied over the year, nearly 40,000 have died.


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