02/20/2014, 00.00
KOREA
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Amid tears and anger, Korea's family reunions take place

Despite threats from Pyongyang, a group of South Koreans left this morning for Mt Kumgang to embrace their loved ones. Participants are mostly very old, afraid they might not recognise their relatives. The son of one of the participants is upset by the nature of the meetings. "My father is 92 years old," he said, and he will see his other son for the first time. "I believe it would be better if (the separated families) were allowed to write letters to one another, rather than attend a one-off reunion".

Seoul (AsiaNews) - At nine o'clock this morning, 82 South Koreans set off for Mt Geumgang in North Korea's Gangwon Province to reunite with family members from whom they were separated for 61 years by war and the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula.

For many of them today's meeting will be the first and only opportunity to get to know each other.

Most of the participants are very old. They gathered yesterday in Sokcho, a town not far from the Demilitarised Zone. Although the registration period was not scheduled to begin until 2 pm, most arrived early at the designated meeting point.

200 volunteers, and 12 medical staff, who will closely monitor their health conditions, accompanied them.

The two Koreas agreed on 5 February to organise a family reunion at a resort on Mount Kumgang, on North Korea's east coast, between 20 to 25 February.

Despite threats of various kinds and the ongoing diplomatic tug-of-war, the meetings appears set to go as planned.

These are the first reunions since 2010. Some were organised for September 2013 but were cancelled a day before by the North.

Family reunions were held for the first time in 1985. They were a "goodwill gesture" by the two Korean governments, but were never formally institutionalised.

To take advantage of this opportunity, South Koreans who can prove that they have a living relative on the other side of the border must register with the South Korean Ministry of Unification.

When the programme started, 130,000people applied; at present, only 71,000 or so are still alive.

From this long list, the South Korean government has drafted several lists by order of seniority and degree of relationship.

The priority is given to the oldest applicants who can handle the physical and mental stress that reunions entail and those whose next of kin are sons, brothers or sisters.

A list of about a thousand names was established, and the ministry had a computer randomly select the names during a televised lottery.

Some names are held in "reserve" in case something unforeseen happens at the last moment. Once an applicant takes part in a reunion, his or her name is taken off the list.

Nothing is known about how North Korea picks its applicants.

Park Yun-hyong, 92, left with the group this morning to find his eldest daughter. He is accompanied by his 60-something son who is upset by the bittersweet nature of the reunions.

"As you can see," the son told reporters before leaving, "we are more upset than happy. We are well aware of the deep sadness and longing we will feel when we have to separate again in a few days," he lamented.

"My father," he added, "is 92 years old. I am already concerned about the shock he will suffer. I am sorry that only we have received permission to go. It also seems there will be some things we cannot talk about because of the restrictions. I believe it would be better if (the separated families) were allowed to write letters to one another, rather than attend a one-off reunion".

His glumness is not shared by the other participants. Baek Gwan-soo, 91, left his home in Incheon yesterday morning at dawn and was the first to arrive in Sokcho, afraid that the traffic would slow him down.

He brought with him three large bags with underclothes, medicine and cosmetics for his 30-year-old grandson, whom he would meet today for the very first time.

In one bag, he brought the popular Choco-pies, which he hopes his 30-year-old grandson will enjoy.

However, since he is "the only one living comfortably (in the South)," he is "worried he [the grandson] will look at me with resentment".

Park Chun Jae, 72, recently suffered a fall, resulting in an extended stay in hospital. But he was adamant to make the journey. Despite being released only two days ago, "I desperately wanted to see my nephews, so I came," he said.

Cho Gi-dok, 93, was born in the province of southern Hamkyung, in what is now North Korea. His eldest son was born in 1950 and found himself separated from his son on the other side of the border. He came to the meeting with his ​​other son because his lifelong dream to see his sons together.

He too has brought large bags full of gifts. However, he found out that his wife's poor health prevented her from making the journey from up north.

"At least that is what I was told," he said. "In one respect, I hope that is true and not a lie to hide something worst."

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