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Families separated by war for 60 years part ways in tears

All Headlines 14:31 November 01, 2010

By Sam Kim

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Nov. 1 (Joint Press Corps) -- After being reunited in North Korea for three days, 97 families separated by the Korean War bid one another farewell again on Monday, weeping over a reality forced upon them by six decades of conflict between their countries.

Touching the palms of their wrinkled hands to family members' on the other side of closed bus windows, the South and North Koreans said their last words of blessing to each other on the final day of their reunions at this mountain resort in the communist state.

"I love you. I love you," one South Korean woman shouted to her North Korean family member aboard a bus as it prepared to depart from the reunion center.

Many North Koreans stood up inside the bus for a better view of their South Korean family members waving at them. One of the three buses carrying North Koreans had its windows completely closed, muffling the words of its sobbing passengers.

As the white buses started to leave the center, the cries grew louder among the hundreds of South Korean family members sending them off. Many watched helplessly, long after the buses had disappeared. Some sat on the ground and broke down in yet more tears. One family member swore at the utter sadness of the scene, deploring the fact that none of the Koreans here could guarantee another meeting even though they lived only several hours' drive from each other.

Millions of Koreans were separated during the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce. Many of them have died over the years, and there are now 80,000 South Koreans on an official waiting list for reunions. The figure does not take into account the more than 40,000 applicants who have died or given up on the search.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited over 17,000 people face-to-face and an estimated 3,700 via video. The latest reunions came as tension remained 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 came as the North tied additional future meetings 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.

Yoo Chong-ha, the head of Seoul's Red Cross, said he proposed holding the next round of reunions in March and to use the time until then to verify the whereabouts of family members being sought by the other side.

During their "farewell session" on Monday morning, the families sang traditional folk songs like "Arirang" together and made sure that their children could recognize each other through photos if and when the Koreas reunify.

Unable to stand up after a deep bow to his father, 62-year-old Ko Pae-il sobbed with his head down, grabbing the hands of the man from whom he was separated at the age of three.

Ko, who lives in Alabama in the United States, told his father that he was "sorry for not being able to be a good son." His father, 81, who looked for him first, said, "It's OK. It's OK."

Wearing a coat given to him by his family members from the South, Park Byong-jin, a 80-year-old North Korean, embraced his South Korean relatives in tears, promising to meet them again.

The governments of the two Koreas prohibit civilian contact without prior authorization. Promises of reunions rarely materialize, swayed heavily by the state of cross-border relations.

The North Koreans were generally restrained in their expressions and action, some freezing in front of journalists and cameras.

"Give me something I can remember you by," Kim Kyeong-oh, a South Korean, said as he pleaded with his older brother, who was wearing a coat Kim had brought for him.

Many family members embraced, cheek to cheek. One South Korean woman moaned, muffling herself with a scarf, saying, "I won't cry. So you shouldn't cry, either, sister." Another family toasted with soda as they wished for another chance to be reunited.

Parent-child reunions were rare in this week's event, underscoring the growing number of people who die while waiting for their chance to reunite.

On Wednesday, another reunion event will take place at Mount Kumgang, bringing about 100 other South Koreans here. Those reunions will last until Friday.


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