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For some Korean families, a long-awaited reunion

SEOUL, South Korea — They prepared for days in advance, picking out special dresses or suits, dusting off family photographs, gathering small gifts. They traveled by bus through the snowy countryside and over the demilitarized border into North Korea.

And there, at a mountain resort, a group of elderly South Koreans reunited with relatives they hadn't seen in six decades. Sisters met brothers. Fathers met daughters. One South Korean was so frail, he entered the ballroom on a stretcher.

The six-day family reunion, which began Thursday, marked a rare show of cooperation between the two Koreas, whose governments this month approved a new round of the humanitarian program after a three-year lapse. The resumption signaled that Pyongyang and Seoul at minimum have a shared interest in connecting long-lost relatives, whose separation is one of the enduring sorrows on this divided peninsula.

For many of the South Koreans attending the reunion, this chance to see their relatives is not just their first in decades, but likely their last. The 82 participants were chosen by computer-generated lottery from a waiting list of more than 70,000. The average participant was 84. Many arrived with canes or in wheelchairs, accompanied by younger guardians.

"Time is running out for all these elderly people," said Hong Soon-ho, whose mother, Heo Kyeong-ok, 86, reunited with a younger sister.

Many of the participants, upon seeing their relatives, quivered or fell to the ground. They held hands. They wailed. Eventually, they shared photos and told family stories, in moments captured by South Korean television networks, which broadcast the reunions live.

Before and during the Korean War (1950-53), more than a million Koreans criss-crossed the border, the result of a chaotic period in which some family members fled and waited for others to join them. A ceasefire, though, created an impermeable zone in the center of the peninsula, an area strung with barbed wire and dotted with land mines.

Because the war still technically continues, Koreans on both sides are banned from sending mail or making phone calls across the border.

For some Korean families, a long-awaited reunion 02/20/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 20, 2014 9:42pm]
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