SEOUL, South Korea – Their backs stooped, dozens of elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades reunited Thursday, weeping and embracing in a rush of words and emotion. The reunions come during a rare period of detente between the rival Koreas and are all the more poignant because the participants will part again in a few days, likely forever.
About 80 South Koreans traveled through falling snow with their families to North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort to meet children, brothers, sisters, spouses and other relatives. Seoul had said about 180 North Koreans were expected.
South Korean TV showed old women in brightly colored traditional hanbok dresses talking and hugging, families trading photographs of relatives who couldn’t attend or had died. Two men in suits and ties wiped away tears, grasped each other by the necks and pressed their foreheads together as cameras flashed. One old man was wheeled in on a stretcher, his head propped on a pillow, a blue blanket wrapped tightly around him.
These meetings – the first in more than three years because of high tensions – are a vivid reminder that despite 60 years of animosity, misunderstanding, threats and occasional artillery exchanges, the world’s most heavily armed border divides a single people.
For some other families, aging and illness did not thwart the reunions but made them bittersweet.
“Sister, why can’t you hear me?” North Korean Ri Jong Sil, 84, asked 87-year-old Lee Young-sil, who has difficulty recognizing people because of Alzheimer’s disease, according to South Korean media pool reports.
Tears flowed down Ri’s deeply wrinkled face as Lee’s daughter began sobbing, telling her mother: “Mom, it’s my aunt. It’s my aunt. She’s your sister.”
The reunions are broken into two parts. Thursday’s reunions end Saturday. A second group of about 360 South Koreans plans to visit the mountain resort Sunday to meet with 88 elderly North Koreans. Those reunions end Tuesday.
Both governments ban their citizens from visiting each other or even exchanging letters, phone calls and emails.