SEOUL, South Korea -- Dozens of South Koreans crossed the heavily fortified border into North Korea today for reunions with relatives most haven't seen since they were separated by the turmoil of the Korean War.
The weeklong event at North Korea's Diamond Mountain resort comes as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts and push to resolve a standoff over North Korea's drive for a nuclear weapons program that can reliably target the continental U.S.
The temporary reunions are highly emotional because most participants are elderly people eager to see their loved ones once more before they die. Most of their families were driven apart during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still in a technical state of war.
Buses carrying about 90 elderly South Koreans and their family members were moving into the Diamond Mountain resort after crossing into North Korea. Earlier in the morning, the South Koreans, some in wheelchairs and aided by Red Cross workers, left the buses briefly to enter the South Korean immigration office in the eastern border town of Goseong.
They were to reunite with their long-lost North Korean relatives this afternoon at the start of a three-day reunion. A separate round of reunions from Friday to Sunday will involve more than 300 other South Koreans, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
Since the end of the war, both Koreas have banned ordinary citizens from visiting relatives on the other side of the border or contacting them without permission. Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives.
This week's reunions come after a three-year hiatus during which North Korea conducted three nuclear tests and launched multiple missiles that demonstrated the potential of striking the continental U.S., raising fears about an outbreak of war.
At past meetings, elderly relatives -- some relying on wheelchairs or walking sticks -- have wept, hugged and caressed each other in a rush of emotions.
The reunions are occurring during a flurry of diplomatic contacts as both sides attempt to find a path to peace on the Korean Peninsula. In recent months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have met twice.
Kim also held a summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, where they set a goal of a nuclear-free peninsula. In the weeks since, however, U.S. and North Korean negotiators have failed to reach an agreement on the issue.
Moon, who plans to meet with Kim again in September in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, said progress on inter-Korean reconciliation will be a crucial part of international efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North. The Koreas have held military talks and are fielding combined teams at the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia in a gesture of goodwill.
Still, South Korea has failed to persuade the North to accept its long-standing proposal for more frequent reunions with more participants. North Korea has also ignored the South's suggestion of hometown visits and letter exchanges.
The limited number of reunions cannot meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s, South Korean officials say. More than 75,000 of the 132,000 South Koreans who have applied to participate in reunions have died, according to government figures.
Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip with the South and doesn't want them expanded because they give North Koreans a better awareness of the outside world. While South Korea uses a computerized lottery to pick participants for the reunions, North Korea is believed to choose based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.
Daily NK, a South Korean news service with contacts inside the North, reported last week that only North Koreans seen as loyal to the regime will be chosen for the reunions.
Either way, those who do get chosen have to undergo a month of political indoctrination to make sure they say the right things, said Choe Eun-bum, who at the Red Cross worked to reunite divided families for many years.
"Among the first things the North Koreans tell their South Korean relatives is their gratitude to their great leader," he said, which immediately "casts a chill over the long-awaited reunion."
One of the participants, Lee Soo-nam, was 8 the last time he saw his older brother. Sixty-eight years ago this month, the boy watched, bewildered, as his 18-year-old brother left their home in Seoul to escape invading North Korean soldiers who were conscripting young men just weeks after invading South Korea to start the Korean War.
An hour later, his brother, Ri Jong Song, was snatched up by North Korean soldiers near a bridge across Seoul's Han River. Lee always assumed Ri died during the three-year war, which killed and injured millions before a cease-fire in 1953, but his mother prayed daily for her lost son's return, giving up only a few years before her death in 1975.
But Ri survived the war, living in North Korea, and will reunite with his brother this week.
The elderly relatives gathering at Diamond Mountain resort know that, given the fickle nature of ties between the rival Koreas, this could be the last time they see each other before they die.
"I'm nervous. I'm still unsure whether this is a dream or reality. I just want to thank him for staying alive all these years," Lee, 76, said in an interview in his home in Seoul, not far from where he last saw his brother.
Lee expects to meet with Ri, 86, and his 79-year-old North Korean wife and 50-year-old son. Lee plans to take more than a dozen family photos, including a black-and-white picture of Ri with a buzz-cut when he was 16 or 17.
"That's how I remember him," Lee said. "I lost a brother and my parents lost a child, but my brother lost his parents, siblings, friends and an entire hometown, and he probably spent his whole life longing for all of those things. It's heartbreaking to think about."
Behind the raw emotions, the meetings are tightly coordinated events where participants are closely watched by North Korean officials and dozens of South Korean journalists.
On Sunday, the South Korean participants gathered in the city of Sokcho for a briefing on how to behave. As in previous reunions, South Korea's Red Cross, which organizes the events with its North Korean counterpart, has issued a guidebook telling South Koreans what to do and what not to do.
"Political comments such as criticism of the North's leadership and the state of its economy could put your [North Korean] family members into a difficult situation," the book says. "If a North Korean family member sings a propaganda song or makes a political comment, restrain them appropriately by naturally changing the subject of the conversation."
South Koreans also can't give their North Korean relatives luxury items because of international sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programs, and cash gifts have been banned this year to reflect the sanctions, said a South Korean Red Cross official who didn't want to be identified by name, citing office rules.
Information for this article was contributed by Kim Tong-Hyung, Chang Yong Jun and Hyung-jin Kim of The Associated Press and by Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim of The Washington Post.
South Koreans register Sunday at a hotel in Sokcho to participate in family reunions with their North Korean relatives this week at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort.
A Section on 08/20/2018
Print Headline: Korean kin to meet after decades apart