Tears as Korean families reunite for first time in decades

South Korean family reunification

In this October 22, 2015, file photo, North Korean Son Kwon Geun, (centre), weeps with his South Korean relatives as he bids farewell after the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea. "Do you have a son?"

The weeklong event, the first of its kind in almost three years, was arranged as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts amid a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Some of those selected for this year's reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and they could only meet more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.

"I don't know when he will die".

Ninety-three families from both sides of the border had been initially due to hold a three-day gathering from Monday, but four South Korean members cancelled at the last minute because of poor health, the Red Cross said.

During Monday's meeting, many elderly Koreans held each other's hands and wiped away tears with handkerchiefs while asking how their relatives had lived.

Among them was Lee Keum-seom, now a tiny and frail 92, who was waiting to see her son for the first time since she left him behind in the turmoil of war.

Before this week's reunions, almost 20,000 people had participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. The ministry estimates there are now about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended relatives in North Korea.

Clasping one another, they tried to bridge the decades of separation through precious physical contact and by showing each other pictures of their relatives. But this year has seen a pause in the nuclear and missile program and an attempt, led by President Donald Trump and South Korea's Moon to find a diplomatic path out of the crisis.

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But the reunions are often also tinged with frustration, with many North Koreans determined to publicly demonstrate their allegiance to the regime, out of genuine loyalty or just fear.

She could only say "Ah" and "When I fled." before choking up with tears. More than 131,000 people are registered as separated family members in South Korea, according to the government.

Park Hong-seo, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran from the southern city of Daegu, said he always wondered whether he'd faced his older brother in battle.

"They don't know what their father looks like so I will tell them what he looked like and when he died", Jang said. The Unification Ministry estimates there are now about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended relatives in North Korea. War refugee parents were finally able to see their own children for the first time after more than six decades. "As a separated family member, I deeply share their sorrow and pitifulness", he said during a meeting with his aides.

North Korea is reluctant to accept calls for more reunions.

The limited number of reunions can not meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s, South Korean officials say.

Most of the 89 participants chosen from the South are in their 70s or 80s, while the oldest is 101.

Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip and doesn't want them expanded because they give its people better awareness of the outside world.

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