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2009/09/26 17:45 KST
(2nd LD) Separated Korean families meet in first reunion event in two years

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Sept. 26 (Yonhap) -- For nearly half a century, the family of Lee Kwae-seok, who went missing at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 after being conscripted by the South Korean military, thought that Lee died during the three-year war.

   On Saturday, however, the 79-year-old Lee, who has actually been living in North Korea, appeared in front of his younger brother Jung-ho, 76, who voluntarily joined the military in 1952 just to find him.

   "Are you Jung-ho?" "Ah, brother I really wanted to see you," cried the two brothers at a reunion event organized by the two Koreas for families separated by the war.

   They were among hundreds of South and North Korean who met their families long-lost families separated by the war, the first government-arranged reunions in two years, which is one of the most visible reconciliatory steps between the two sides after protracted tensions on the peninsula.

   Ninety-six elderly South Koreans traveled across the Demilitarized Zone earlier in the day to meet family members at the Mount Kumgang resort on North Korea's east coast, according to pool reports. More than three-quarters of the participants were 70 or older.

   The South Koreans met their 240 relatives in the North with the participants also scheduled to attend a dinner hosted by North Korea. They will hold separate, personal meetings on Sunday and the South Koreans are scheduled to return the following day.

   In the second segment of the event from next Tuesday also at the same venue, 99 North Koreans will be re-united with 449 relatives living in the South.

   Lee has been living in North Korea after being captured by the North in 1950 soon after the outbreak of the Korean War. His younger brother Jung-ho joined the South Korean military two years after to find the whereabouts of Kwae-seok. He served for 12 years to find his brother.

   In 1960, the South Korean military concluded that Lee Kwae-seok died during battle. His family found out just three months ago that he was living in North Korea after having been captured.

   About 600,000 people in the South are believed to have family in the North. The first round of cross-border reunions was held in 1985, and they had become a semi-regular event since 2000 after a historic inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. They were halted in 2007 as inter-Korean ties began to fray.

   The reunions this time, a result of a dramatic agreement last month between the North's leader Kim Jong-il and Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of South Korea's Hyundai Group -- a major investor in the cash-strapped nation -- will be held in two separate, three-day long, back-to-back events.

   The two-hour long meeting was held at a facility dedicated for the reunion of separated families that was completed in July of last year but had been left empty for more than a year amid souring of inter-Korean ties.

   Also included among the participants from the North were two South Korean fishermen who were taken to the North in 1987 after their boat floated into Northern waters.

   "I'm so pleased to see you. I missed you so much," cried Roh Soon-ho, a 50-year old South Korean, who met with her younger brother, Roh Sung-ho, 48, who was one of the two fishermen.

   "I've got married here, went to college and am living well here," Roh Sung-ho, 48, told his sister. He brought along his wife and his 21-year old daughter at the meeting.

   Candidates from the South were first selected through a computer lottery, with the final lists being drawn from applicants whose relatives were located, giving priority to immediate family members and the elderly.

   The reunions are a highlight of the North's recent good-will gestures, which have also included the easing of cross-border traffic to and from a South Korean-run industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea.

   Inter-Korean tensions mounted after the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak came to power in the South last year. Lee toughened up on the North's nuclear drive and suspended massive aid, and in response North Korea boycotted dialogue and suspended the family reunions.

   The mood further chilled in July last year after a North Korean soldier in the Mount Kumgang resort area shot and killed a South Korean tourist who had strayed into an off-limits military zone.

   South Korean Red Cross President Yoo Chong-ha also traveled to the North with the South Korean families. He is expected to hold a meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Jang Jae-on.

   South Korean political parties were also united in welcoming the resumption of the family reunion event and calling for it to be held on a regular basis.

   "Whatever happens and despite any difficulty, such humanitarian exchanges should transcend the ideological barrier," Rep. Cho Yoon-sun, spokesperson for the ruling Grand National Party said in a commentary. "We wish the reunions will be regularized until the day of reunification."

   The main opposition Democratic Party also expressed hope in a statement that the reunions will "serve as a decisive chance" to thaw frosty inter-Korean relations.