Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Heo Kyung-ok, an 86-year-old South Korean woman, waves to reporters as she leaves Hanwha Resort Condo in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2014 for North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort to meet her family members living in the North. (Yonhap)
Heo Kyung-ok, an 86-year-old South Korean woman, waves to reporters as she leaves Hanwha Resort Condo in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2014 for North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort to meet her family members living in the North. (Yonhap)
20 February 2014

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- More than 100 South Koreans arrived at North Korea's mountain resort on Thursday to meet with relatives they haven't seen for over six decades amid lingering tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.

A total of 82 elderly South Koreans, accompanied by 58 family members, were preparing for the reunions with 180 North Korean relatives at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North's east coast.

Their bus trip across the militarized border came four days before South Korea and the United States kick off their annual joint military exercises, which are denounced by the North as a rehearsal for invasion.

The North had demanded that Seoul delay the military exercises until after the reunions end, but it later backed down in their rare high-level talks.

The communist nation's concession paved the way for the two Koreas to stage the reunions for the first time since late 2010, in a rare sign of thawing ties amid Pyongyang's recent conciliatory overture toward Seoul.

South Korea has called the reunions a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations after months of tensions over Pyongyang's harsh war rhetoric against Seoul and Washington.

Jang Chun (in wheelchair), an 82-year-old South Korean man, waves to reporters as he leaves Hanwha Resort Condo in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2014 for North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort to meet his family members living in the North. (Yonhap)Jang Chun (in wheelchair), an 82-year-old South Korean man, waves to reporters as he leaves Hanwha Resort Condo in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2014 for North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort to meet his family members living in the North. (Yonhap)

The South Koreans will meet with their North Korean relatives at 3 p.m. before they eat dinner together, in their first reunions since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Son Ki-ho, 90, said he is excited to see his daughter, then 2 years old, he left behind in the North during the war. "The image of my daughter waving her hands to me when we parted is still vivid in my eyes," Son told reporters ahead of his trip.

The meeting will bring together Kang Wan-koo, 81, a former South Korean war veteran and his North Korean elder brother, who was forcibly taken to the North's military and fought against the South during the war.

Millions of Koreans remain separated across the border as the sides are technically in a state of war after the three-year conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. There are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries.

Family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the divided peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

The Thursday-Saturday reunions will be followed by another round of some 450 people from both sides.

The reunions are set to end Tuesday, a day after Seoul and Washington begin their joint military exercises meant to heighten their defense posture against possible provocations from North Korea.

South Korea has repeatedly called for frequent family reunions with North Korea. Still, the North has balked at the idea of staging frequent family reunions.

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