At a Diamond Mountain resort, on the border between North and South Korea, a rare and poignant meeting is underway this week and next. Hundreds of South Koreans are reuniting with their family members in the North – some of whom they haven’t seen in six decades.
Similar events have been held on occasion since 1988 (the last one in 2014). Their frequency has depended to a large extent upon relations between the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Reunions between the separated families have been allowed only sporadically.
An August agreement that reduced tensions somewhat, provided this opportunity, and nearly 400 participants – along with family members – are taking part in the first round of six two-hour sessions from Tuesday to Thursday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Another 250 will attend the second round from Saturday to next Monday.
Many of the attendees are bringing gifts for their North Korean relatives such as clothes, food, toothpaste, and cash.
In the South, participants are picked at random by a computer that takes into account their age and family history. Then they’re interviewed and given medical examinations to determine their fitness to make the trip. Relatively few are chosen and they are mostly elderly. Nearly half of the 130,410 South Koreans who have applied to attend a reunion have died.
Thousands of families have been apart with little or no contact since the war ended in 1953. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to visit relatives on the other side of the border. Even exchanging letters, phone calls and email requires permission from the government.
Understandably, these are always very emotional affairs. Many weep, overcome by the emotional impact of spending a few precious days with their relatives after all those years of separation. The oldest in the group are aware that this may be their last opportunity to see each other. Records show that none of the invited participants has attended a second time.
It’s an important event for the media as well. Pictures and videos of the reunions are broadcast throughout South Korea and make front-page headlines, but North Korea’s government-run news outlet KCNA had not published any reports hours after the reunions began on Tuesday.