Two Koreas exchange first mail in 51 years


North and South Korea exchanged mail for 600 families on Thursday, the first contact in more than 50 years for the relatives.

The exchange marks a small step towards healing decades of pain for the families, long separated by the world’s most fortified border.

“We exchanged 300 letters from each side with North Korean officials at Panmunjom (the neutral U.N. border village) after checking their names and addresses,” said a spokesman for South Korea’s Red Cross.

The Red Cross plans to post the letters from the North to South Korean families on Friday.

But some anxious people rushed to the Red Cross building in central Seoul to get their mail earlier.

“I came here to get the mail from my brother in the North on behalf of my mother who is 100 years old and sick in bed,” said Kim Min-ha, 69, senior vice-president of the (Presidential) Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification.

“My mother is senile and maybe won’t comprehend the letter. But I would read it to her anyway. She has been waiting for it for decades,” he said.

Also among those sending letters to long-lost relatives were a 107-year-old mother of a son in the North, the parents of an abducted South Korean sailor and the parents of a flight attendant whose plane was hijacked to the North in 1969.

The South Korean Red Cross said it planned to discuss how to expand the correspondence at a meeting with its North Korean counterpart next month.

The mail exchange is one of the fruits of an historic summit held last June in Pyongyang, in which leaders of the two Koreas vowed to end a half-century of sometimes bloody confrontation.

Breaking decades of stony silence is an emotional issue for about 10 million people in the two Koreas who have family ties on each side of the border.

The vast majority have not seen their relatives since the 1950-53 Korea War. There are no communication or transport links of any kind between the rival Koreas.

The letter exchange and an agreement this week to form a single Korean team for next month’s world table tennis championships in Japan indicate North Korea intends to remain engaged with the South, despite its anger with Washington.

South Korean Minister of Culture, Tourism and Sports Kim Han-gil announced the joint team after returning home late on Wednesday from Pyongyang, where he discussed various exchanges.