(ATTN: UPDATES with banquet speeches by N. Korean official and S. Korean Red Cross chief)
By Koh Byung-joon
MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Aug. 20 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- Hundreds of South and North Koreans torn apart by the 1950-53 Korean War met for the first time in over six decades in a tearful, long-dreamed-of family reunion on Monday.
Eighty-nine South Koreans, mostly in their 70s and older, met about 180 long-separated family members, including brothers, sisters and other relatives living in North Korea, at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North's east coast.
Some of them were so frail that they were in wheelchairs and supported by others during the meeting that lasted for two hours from 3 p.m. The meeting was the first session of reunions planned during their three-day stay that will end on Wednesday.
"Sangchol!" Lee Keum-seom, a 92-year-old South Korean woman, burst into tears as she called her son's name when they met for the first time in decades. Her son also wept.
Lee was split from the rest of her family, including her husband and son, in the middle of the Korean War.
"How many kids do you have?" Lee asked her 71-year-old son, holding his hands tight.
Han Shin-ja, a 99-year-old woman, couldn't say much except cry when she saw her two daughters -- Kim Gyong-sil and Gyong-yong -- both in their 70s.
The three used to live in Heungnam when the war broke out and were split during the Jan. 4 Retreat in 1951. They hugged one another without saying much for a while.
"When I escaped the war..." she said, unable to continue, apparently overwhelmed by regret over the fact that she had to leave her two daughters behind.
As many participants are elderly, reunions between parents and their sons and daughters are rare. Most cases are meetings among cousins, nieces or nephews.
Baik Sung-gyu is the oldest person to take part in the family reunion event. Accompanied by his son from the South, the 101-year-old came into the meeting hall in a wheelchair.
When he met a daughter-in-law and her daughter from the North, he smiled but didn't say much. Instead, his son led the conversation. "I am your uncle," he told Baik's granddaughter living in the North.
The first session of reunions was followed by a dinner hosted by North Korea.
Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said in a banquet speech that the Red Cross of the two Koreas should work together to open a new chapter in resolving the humanitarian issue in an apparent reference to the family reunions.
Family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the divided peninsula, as most separated family members are in their 70s and 80s and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.
The division keeps ordinary citizens from the rival Koreas from meeting, making phone calls or sending letters or emails to each other, though some illegal channels exist.
Park Kyung-seo, head of the South Korean Red Cross, said that the two Koreas should allow separated families to confirm whether their long-lost relatives are still alive, meet each other freely and visit their hometowns. Park noted that time is running out for separated family members.
North Korea has described the separations as a tragedy, though it has balked at the idea of staging frequent meetings, apparently out of concern that South Korean influence could seep into the isolated country.
On Monday, some of the separated family members at the reunion appeared to be a little uncomfortable at first, apparently reflecting the decades without contact, but the awkwardness soon melted away and they engaged in conversation, asking each other about how they have lived.
On the second day, the families will be granted more time to meet, helping them become closer. They will see each other again Tuesday morning and have lunch together in their hotel rooms, the first time the separated families will have had such a private meeting since the start of the reunion event.
They will have six meetings totaling 11 hours by Wednesday, according to the unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affair.
In subsequent reunions planned to take place from Friday to Sunday, 83 North Koreans will also meet their relatives found to be alive in the South. More than 300 South Koreans will travel to the venue later this week for the event.
The two rounds of family reunions are a follow-up on an agreement the leaders of South and North Korea reached in April to address humanitarian issues arising from nearly seven decades of division caused by the Korean War.
The event came amid a thaw in relations between the two Koreas after a yearslong hiatus and tensions heightened by the North's continued pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.
Inter-Korean relations have been improving in a dramatic way since earlier this year when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered the olive branch of sending his athletes and a delegation to the Winter Olympics hosted in South Korea in March.
The two Koreas have resumed cross-border talks ever since amid a growing sense of peace which culminated in historic summits. Their leaders are expected to meet again in Pyongyang next month.
During the April summit in particular, they agreed to work toward the "complete" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, halt hostile acts and expand long-frozen exchanges and cooperation.
The denuclearization process, however, has been stalemated recently as the United States and North Korea appear to be at odds over how and at what speed the North should relinquish its nuclear weapons program.
The separated families have been deemed major victims of the longstanding division and heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
This week's family reunions come nearly three years after such an event was last held in October 2015.
The two Koreas have organized 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunions since the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. Some 57,000 South Koreans are waiting to be reunited with their families who might be living in the North.
The two countries technically remain at war as the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
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