Joy, tears await Koreans at latest reunions

SEOUL, Reuters

Yoo Du-hee, 100, has not seen her son for half a century.

Now 75, Yoo’s son Shin Tong-gil has been trapped behind the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Yoo has long dreamed of the day when she could see her son once more and this week could be her last chance.

On Wednesday, she braved the winter chill in Seoul to join other elderly South Koreans set to fly to North Korea’s capital to see loved ones for the first time since the war.

Yoo is among 200 elderly people from North and South Korea, who will have closely supervised meetings with relatives during the three-day trip beginning on Thursday.

A South Korean plane, carrying 151 South Koreans, including 20 journalists, leaves for Pyongyang at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday. The same plane will then pick up 136 North Koreans and return to Seoul.

The reunions follow a first round of such meetings in August, which were agreed during June’s historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The reunions are an emotive issue because an estimated 10 million people have families divided by the Demilitarized Zone, a rugged four-km (2.5-mile) wide strip that separates the two Koreas.

Officials in Seoul said the meetings to begin Thursday would be more private than those in August.

The two sides cut the reunion schedule by a day and planned to reduce unnecessary costs.

In an schedule packed with photo opportunities, individual reunions would last for a total 4-+hours.

The Unification Ministry said it would spend about 950 million won (US$800,900) on this round of reunions compared to 1.8 billion won allotted for the August event.

But the ministry said it would try to hold more reunions involving more people because most participants were now elderly.

North and South Korea agreed in September to step up efforts to promote cross border exchanges and widen economic cooperation in a bid to speed reconciliation.

The two sides agreed to two more rounds of family reunions after the August meetings, but that target now appears almost impossible to meet.

“The third round of reunions would likely be held early next year as both sides felt they needed more time to prepare,” the ministry spokesman said.

Since the watershed June summit, North and South Korean officials have held a series of meetings aimed at fostering social and economic exchanges — themes at the forefront of President Kim Dae-jung’s two-year-old ‘sunshine policy’ toward the North.