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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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North and South Korean Families Reunite

Oct. 21, 2015

It's been a day of tears and laughter in one North Korean mountain resort. Hundreds of people who've been separated from their relatives for decades have finally come face to face again. They were the lucky ones selected to go to the foot of Mount Kumgang and briefly reunite with their kin.

These emotional gatherings have a complex history. Back in 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il put their rivalries aside and agreed to allow the first reunions. They held another round the following year and most years since.

They were forced to cancel several times as relations between Seoul and Pyongyang frayed. North Korea's nuclear program and missile tests meant there were no reunions from 2010 to 2014.

The reunions resumed early last year for the first time since Kim-Jong-un took power. Then inter-Korean relations hit rock bottom. This week's gatherings are the first in 20 months. Nearly 4,000 families have been reunited over the last 15 years.

NHK World’s Kim Chan-ju joined Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Sokcho near the demilitarized zone.

Beppu: Chan-ju, these reunions depend on diplomatic relations that have been rocky through the years. Were there concerns this round would be cancelled?

Kim: Yes. Since the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, the reunions have been seen as a symbol of reconciliation. But the North has repeatedly cancelled them at the last minute, using them as a kind of bargaining chip. Earlier this month, when the ruling Worker's Party was celebrating its 70th anniversary, officials in Pyongyang said they planned to continue with their nuclear development and highlighted their strong ties with China. South Korean President Park Geun-hye and US President Barack Obama sat down last week and agreed to work together to protect themselves from threat from Pyongyang. North Korea's Workers' Party's newspaper said the two leaders were talking "nonsense". Officials in Seoul were concerned, right until the last minute, that North Korea might pull the plug on this latest round of reunions.

Shibuya: Why do you think North Korea allowed them to go ahead in this environment?

Kim: Analysts say they agreed to proceed this time for several reasons. One is that they're hoping the reunions bring economic opportunities, including more tourism to the Mount Kumgang area. North has been struggling to earn stable capital because of international sanctions. Experts also say the North's leaders want to deflect international criticism of their human rights record. The reunions could help them argue that they're sensitive to humanitarian issues. And the humanitarian issue is getting more pressing every year. Most participants from the South are in their 80s or 90s now. I met one as he was preparing to see his sister for the first time in more than six decades.

Park Yong-deuk lost track of his sister in 1950, when he was 16. The Korean War had started several months earlier and his sister Ryong-soon was working as a student nurse. She had been sent off to the front lines to treat wounded soldiers, but came home for a brief visit.

"We had no grain at home and little to eat," Yong-deuk recalls. "My sister said she would go get some rice from the military hospital. We said, 'OK, see you.' But we didn't see her again."

The whole family tried desperately to find her, but had no luck. 60 years later, Yong-deuk received a phone call from The South Korean Red Cross informing him that his sister in the North was searching for him. "I'm sure my late parents are bringing my sister and I together one time before I die," he says. "It's nothing short of a miracle that we'll meet."

The night before the reunion, Park registered with the South Korean Red Cross. He could hardly contain his emotions as he headed to the transit office to cross into North Korea by bus. "I am so excited to meet my sister. But I've settled down now," he said. "I thought my sister would come alone, but I heard her son will be with her. Now I hope to meet him, too."

Park and his two brothers met their sister after a separation of 65 years, and met their nephew for the first time. Most people from the South are in their 80s and 90s. For many of them, seeing family members from the North has been a life-long dream. Most realize this may be the last time they will have this opportunity.

Beppu: It's clearly an emotional experience, especially at that age. Chan-ju, how do you think this will affect North-South relations?

Kim: It's difficult to say. But I can tell you that those who've taken part in the reunions are just a fraction of the 65,000 South Koreans who haven't had a chance to meet their relatives. Their fates have been at the mercy of political battles between the North and South. And as we see elderly people in wheelchairs or using walking sticks, making their way to Mount Kumgang, it's clear that time is running out.