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(3rd LD) Separated Korean families enjoy second day of reunions amid growing sorrow

All Headlines 20:33 October 31, 2010

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES throughout with closing of 2nd day of reunions, new photos)
By Sam Kim

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Oct. 31 (Joint Press Corps) -- Swallowing the sorrow of having to part again in less than a day, Korean families reunited after 60 years of separation sang together, posed for photos and eventually broke down in tears on Sunday as they promised to meet again.

Exchanging the addresses of their homes on either side of the heavily armed border, some families prayed for a chance to be reunited again while others plunged into doldrums over fears that the two Koreas may never be one again.

"Their stress will peak tomorrow when they have to say goodbye to each other," said Lee Jae-pil, a medical doctor assigned to the reunions of 100 families from both Koreas from Saturday to Monday.

The reunions brought about 430 South Koreans and 110 North Koreans together at this famed mountain resort in North Korea where the bright colors of autumn leaves matched the excitement of families meeting again for the first time since the Korean War.

The 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically in a state of conflict to this day. No means of civilian contact is available between them, and over 80,000 South Koreans are on a waiting list for reunions with their loved ones in the North.

The figure does not take into account the South Korean applicants who have died while waiting, numbering more than 40,000.

South Korean Shim Boon-rye, 80, smiled as she sang a folk song about longing for loved ones, but burst into tears as soon as she finished. She then embraced her 77-year-old brother of North Korean citizenship who sang along with her, "How could I forget you? How could I forget you?"

Shim was one of many who sang -- not out of pleasure but out of sorrow -- here at this banquet hall, packed with people photographing each other for one last time and sharing snacks prepared by North Korean organizers.

The conviviality during a luncheon earlier in the day had mostly faded as the families began to face the reality that they would part on the third day of reunions.

"Ask your father everything you have ever wanted to know now, or you may regret it," one family member told Ko Pae-il, a 62-year-old who was reunited with his 81-year-old father. Ko, a Korean-American from Alabama, had said earlier it was too "cruel" that he had to say goodbye to his father, from whom he was separated at the age of 3.

"Father, father, be healthy, OK?" Ko said, racked with sobs.

Such parent-child reunions were rare in this week's event, underscoring the growing number of people who die while waiting for a chance to meet their loved ones again. Outbursts of tears grow fewer and fewer as the years go by, but the overwhelming sense of sorrow persists, South Korean Red Cross organizers say.

"As we approach the time to say goodbye, things to say and things not to say are all racing out of our hearts," Kim Gyoo-byeong, a South Korean reunited with his uncle, said.

North Koreans typically refrained from giving truthful accounts of their lives in the impoverished North, instead praising the leadership of their leader Kim Jong-il and touting their socialist system.

Earlier during the luncheon, a North Korean family member stood up and sang a hymn to the "Dear Leader," freezing the atmosphere momentarily.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited more than 17,000 people face-to-face and an estimated 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.

These reunions, organized through the Red Cross channel, also come as the North ties such events in the future 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.


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