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(3rd LD) Korean families reunited after six decades of separation

All Headlines 16:07 February 20, 2014

(ATTN: RECASTS with start of reunions and details in paras 1-3, 8; Minor edits in paras 4-5, 7; CHANGES headline)
By Kim Kwang-tae and Joint Press Corps

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- Hundreds of South and North Korean families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War met each other for the first time in emotional reunions at a North Korean mountain resort on Thursday.

A total of 82 elderly South Koreans, accompanied by 58 family members, met with 180 North Korean relatives at a hotel at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North's east coast.

Among them, two former South Korean fishermen, who were abducted by the North decades ago, were united with their South Korean family members.

The reunions came as Seoul and Washington prepared to kick off their annual joint military exercises next week, which are denounced by the North as a rehearsal for invasion.

The North had demanded that Seoul delay the military exercises until after the reunions, but it later backed down during rare high-level talks.

Pyongyang's concession paved the way for the two Koreas to stage the reunions for the first time since late 2010, in a rare sign of thawing ties amid Pyongyang's recent conciliatory overture toward Seoul.

South Korea has called the reunions a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations after months of tensions over Pyongyang's harsh war rhetoric against Seoul and Washington.

The South and North Koreans are set to dine together later Thursday.

Son Ki-ho, 90, said he is excited to see his daughter he left behind in the North during the war when she was 2 years old.

"The image of my daughter waving her hands to me when we parted is still vivid in my eyes," Son told South Korean pool reporters ahead of his trip to the North's resort.

Millions of Koreans remain separated across the border as the sides are technically in a state of war after the three-year conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. There are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries.

Family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the divided peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

The Thursday-Saturday reunions will be followed by another round of some 450 people from both sides.

The reunions are set to end Tuesday, a day after Seoul and Washington begin their joint military exercises meant to heighten their defense posture against possible provocations from North Korea.

South Korea has repeatedly called for frequent family reunions with North Korea. However, the North has balked at the idea of staging frequent meetings.

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