Bittersweet tears as divided Koreans meet after 60 years

Emotional gatherings as aged Koreans are given chance to meet after decades apart

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 12:49pm

Several hundred elderly Koreans clung to each other, rocking and weeping, and trading photos and faded memories as they met yesterday at a reunion for families divided by the Korean war.

The emotional gathering at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort was the result of tortuous, high-level negotiations between Pyongyang and Seoul, which had nearly broken down over the North's objections to South Korea-United States military exercises.

Watch: Emotional gatherings as divided Koreans meet after 60 years

Television footage showed snow falling hard as 82 South Koreans - some so frail they had to be carried on stretchers - arrived at the resort in a convoy of buses to meet 180 North Korean relatives they had not seen for decades.

Inside the main hall, where numbered tables had been laid out, there were moving scenes as related people sought each other out and then collapsed into each others' arms.

One of the oldest South Koreans, a 93-year-old man who was separated from his pregnant wife during the 1950-53 conflict, met the now 64-year-old son he had never seen.

"So old," were his first words as they came face-to-face, the resemblance strikingly clear to people watching.

"Let me hug you," the father said and then, sobbing, they embraced.

Nearly all of the participants had brought photographs, either tattered, black and white images of the family before it was split up, or new colour snaps of their present families.

These were then passed around, stroked and cried over.

Some of the reunions proved particularly traumatic, with one North Korean woman, Lee Jung-sil, desperately searching for recognition from her South Korean older sister, Lee Young-sil, 87, an Alzheimers sufferer.

"Big sister. It's me! Why can't you hear me?" Jung-sil said, tears streaming down her face.

A grand dinner was planned for the evening, and today the reunited relatives were to be given the chance for more private gatherings, to be held in their resort guest rooms.

The South Koreans, with an average age of 84, had left the eastern port city of Sokcho at 8.30am on 10 buses.

The departure was delayed as two woman needed medical attention, and ended up being taken in ambulances for the entire journey.

For all the joy the meetings bring, it is tempered by the realisation that - given the participants' advanced ages - it also marks a final farewell in most cases.

"This will be our first and last reunion," Kim Dong-bin, 81, said of the elder sister he left decades ago in Pyongyang.

Watch: South Koreans head for bittersweet family reunion in North