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Hundreds of South Koreans cross border for last set of reunions

A second round of family reunions has brought together relatives split for six decades by the Korean War. But many on the waiting list may die before they get to have their turn at participating in the sporadic events.

After passing the heavily militarized border in a convoy of buses, the group of roughly 250 South Koreans was driven to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang (Diamond Mountain) for the first day of emotional encounters with 190 family members in the north divided by decades of the conflict.

The meetings came two days after

hundreds of other families

had wrapped up the first round of reunions. Earlier in the week, about

390 South Koreans had traveled to the resort

to meet with 180 North Korean relatives.

Tragic stories

Among those travelling to the reunion was Jung Gun-Mok, 64, who had been abducted by the North in 1972 aboard a South Korean fishing boat in the Yellow Sea, and his 88-year-old mother, who had last seen him as a young man. Jung was among 500 South Koreans kidnapped by North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War. The North denies abducting South Koreans, but has allowed some individuals that Seoul says were kidnapped to meet their relatives in reunions.

Koo Sang-Yeon, 98, was the eldest South Korean present at the rare event. He met his two North Korean daughters. As a former North Korean soldier, he was captured during the war and later released from a prison camp to live in the South.

Interaction between the families was tightly controlled; the meetings were limited to six two-hour sessions, including some meetings in a communal hall. For the families involved in the encounters, the total of 12 hours spent together was nowhere near enough to make up for the time lost.

A political bargaining tool

More than 65,000 South Koreans are currently on the waiting list for a reunion spot. The selected few are considered to be part of a fortunate minority. South Korea uses a computerized lottery system to pick participants for the reunions, while North Korea reportedly chooses based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership. In total, only about 18,800 Koreans have participated in 19 face-to-face reunions held between the countries.

The reunion program began after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and was initially planned as an annual event. But Pyongyang has long manipulated the reunion issue as a tool for extracting concessions from Seoul.

Millions of people were displaced by the Korean conflict, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives. Because the conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war. Direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are banned.

Among the South Korean generation that actually experienced the division, the vast majority died without ever having any contact with their relatives in the North - and, in many cases, without knowing if they were even alive.

For many participants from both countries, their first meeting after decades of separation will likely be their last, considering their age. Nearly half of the 130,410 South Koreans who have applied to attend a reunion have died.

ss/cmk (AFP, AP)

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