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First round of Korean reunions ends with tearful farewells

The first batch of South Koreans allowed to pay a rare visit to relatives in North Korea has returned home after an emotional goodbye. For many, it was the last reunion they will experience.

Families were given an hour to say goodbye in a North Korean mountain resort hotel on Saturday following a rare cross-border visit by South Koreans to see relatives in the North whom they had not seen for 60 years.

Many cried or refused to let go of their loved ones' hands as the time for departure drew near.

Altogether 80, mostly elderly, South Koreans and 174 Northern relatives spent a total of 11 hours on six occasions together since Thursday

at this week's reunions,

the first of their kind in three years.

Only a limited number of people from thousands of applicants is selected to take part in the rare family meetings, which are

always the product of intense, and often fraught, negotiations.

Last year, 3,800 elderly South Koreans who had applied for reunions passed away without having their dream fulfilled.

Second visit planned

A second group of 88 North Koreans is set to travel to Mount Kumgang in the North to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday to Tuesday. No further reunions are planned.

Thousands of families were torn apart in the 1950-1953 Korean War, which led to a division of the country into the communist North and the capitalist South. The war is still technically ongoing, as the conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

The reunion program only got under way in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and direct exchanges of letters of telephone calls are still prohibited across the border.

The current reunions were finally agreed earlier this month.

tj/hc (AFPE, dpa)

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