South Korean Park Yang-gon (R), and his brother Park
Yang-su, who was abducted by North Korea, cry during their
family reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea.
More than 100 South Koreans, many of them on wheelchairs,
have crossed the world's most heavily fortified border to be
reunited with family members living in the North whom they have
not seen since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The reunions were held after the North set aside a demand for
the suspension of joint military drills by the South and the
United States, which it had demanded as a pre-condition.
At the Mount Kumgang resort just north of the border,
long-lost relatives embraced with tears, joy and disbelief.
Some failed to recognise family they have not seen in more
than six decades.
Among the South Koreans was Jang Choon, an 81-year-old in a
wheelchair who was dressed in the light brown suit and maroon
tie he had bought for the reunion with a brother and a sister
living in the North.
"My youngest brother Ha-choon had not even started school
when I last saw him," said Jang, the eldest of four siblings,
one of whom has died. "But now he's an old man like me."
The six days of family reunions take place under the cloud of
a UN report on human rights abuses in North Korea, which
investigators have said were comparable to Nazi-era
atrocities. They have said North Korean security chiefs and
possibly even leader Kim Jong Un himself should face
Pyongyang has rejected the report, describing it as a
concoction by the United States and its allies, Japan and the
But the North appears to be willing to maintain a
rapprochement with South Korea that may be crucial as it
seeks food for its people.
The possibility of looming food shortages could have been a
"Now it's almost March, when the new farming season must
begin, and Kim Jong Un has no means to feed his people," said
Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha
"He must get outside help. But looking around, the U.S. won't
give him anything, China doesn't seem willing to give
anything and then there's the U.N. human rights report
pressuring him. The family reunions card is his last resort
because he can't neglect his people."
CAN'T DIE WITH MY EYES CLOSED
The reunions used to be held roughly annually, but have not
taken place since 2010 as tensions between the two Koreas
spiralled after the South said the North sank one of its
naval vessels. In later months, the North shelled a South
Korean island and Pyongyang threatened nuclear attacks last
For many of those making the trip to Mt. Kumgang, it will be
the last chance to meet separated loved ones.
Of the 128,000 people registered in South Korea as coming
from families that were torn apart by the Korean War, 44
percent have already died and more than 80 percent of
survivors are over 70, according to South Korea's Unification
Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations.
There have been 18 family reunions since the first in 1985
and a total of 18,143 South and North Korean brothers,
sisters, fathers and mothers have met.
The events have never been regular and the two Koreas have
squabbled over the details of the events, like deciding on
the venue. After the first four, in which families traveled
back and forth between Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea has
insisted on hosting the events on its soil.
"The North fears exposing their people to the outside world
so they want to shroud their people from looking at the
South's successful way of life," said Kim, the professor.
For the families, the politics are secondary.
"I swore to myself, I must not die before I meet my brother
and sister," said Jang, the 81-year-old. "I just cannot die
with my eyes closed if I don't see them this time."