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Warmth and laughter as families separated by Korean War dine together

All News 10:44 October 31, 2010

By Sam Kim

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Oct. 31 (Joint Press Corps) -- Cheerfully thrusting rice cakes into each other's mouths and taking Polaroid pictures together, South and North Koreans separated by the Korean War six decades ago dined together on Saturday, hours after the families were reunited at this eastern mountain resort in the North.

The 97 families, including four parents who met with their children, set their hearts at ease as they shared warm food served at the family reunion center in Mount Kumgang just north of the heavily armed border between the Koreas.

The more than 570 people, about one fifth of them North Koreans, dined on "galbi," or a Korean beef rib dish, beef soups, the Korean alcoholic beverage soju, smoked salmon, rice cakes and a variety of fruits that included grapes, oranges and bananas.

Many South Koreans improvised family photos by using Polaroid cameras, an invention that came in handy as the families had only three days to spend together.

"When we first met, it felt a bit awkward, because we didn't really know each other," Shin Il-woo, 46, said after she was reunited with the brother of her mother-in-law. "But eating together helped lighten things up."

Kim Yeong-soon, who was reunited with her 77-year-old brother, said after the group dinner that she was already missing him. "I can't wait until tomorrow when we can spend time by ourselves."

The first day of reunions took place en masse at a banquet hall. The second day allowed the families to spend time together separate from the group.

"We're going to dance together when we don't have to worry about other people's eyes on us," said Jang Gyoo-chae, a 51-year-old who met with the brother-in-law of his wife. "We'll have fun and not worry about ideology."

South and North Korea, which respectively support capitalism and communism, remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce. The state of war has been the major blockade when families separated by the war sought to be reunited. Many family members have died after decades of longing. About 80,000 South Koreans are on an official waiting list for the reunions.

The event, which runs from Saturday to next Friday, is the first of its kind in a year.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited over 17,000 people face-to-face and about 3,700 via video. The latest reunions come as tension remains at the highest point in years after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The South blames the North, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

The reunions, organized through the Red Cross channel, also come as the North ties additional ones to massive humanitarian assistance. In their Red Cross talks last week, the North demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer from the South.

"From the viewpoint that we are one nation, we should help each other. If the South opens up to us, we have a lot more to offer," a North Korean Red Cross official said on the sidelines of the reunions that he was helping to organize.

On Seoul's policy of linking large-scale aid to progress in Pyongyang's denuclearization, another official said, "Such U.S.-like attitude must be abandoned. Would we use our nuclear arms to attack these people, the same nation as us?"


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