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2009/10/01 06:00 KST
Separated families to part again after temporary reunion

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea, Oct. 1 (Yonhap) -- Hundreds of family members separated for nearly six decades by the Korean War will part ways again Thursday after briefly reuniting at this mountain resort upon thawing relations between their governments.

   For most of the family members who are elderly, another reunion may never again be possible. The three-day reunion brought together 98 North Koreans and their 428 relatives in the South, who have not seen each other since the war that left an uncrossable border on the peninsula.

"How good it would have been if we were younger," Jang Jeong-gyo, 83, said in tears in a Wednesday's session with her long-lost husband, Ro Jun-hyon, 82.

   Jang never remarried after her husband was conscripted in the North Korean military at the onset of the war, when she was 23. The elderly couple had one last hour to be together before parting again later Thursday.

   "I thought you married someone else or were dead," a remorseful Ro answered.

   Kim Yu-jung, the oldest participant at age 100, gave her 75-year-old daughter, Ri Hye-gyong, an album of photos of remaining family members in the South. She would leave her daughter with relief, as Ri, married to a former university chief in the North, was living a relatively well-to-do life.

   "I don't worry much, perhaps because I now know she is well in the North," Kim said Wednesday.

   After an hour-long final session at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's east coast, the South Korean families will return home by bus through the military demarcation line. The event was the second segment of reunions arranged for North Koreans seeking their kin in the South. An earlier event that ended Monday was held for 97 South Koreans looking for their loved ones in the North, whose number totaled 233.

   The reunion event, arranged by Red Cross offices of both sides, was the first in nearly two years as the Koreas were trying to patch up ties after a long stalemate. North Korea last month agreed to the humanitarian event as part of conciliatory moves toward South Korea and the United States.

   In exchange for its softening policies, North Korea wanted the South to resume rice and fertilizer aid and reopen a profitable tour program to the reunion venue, Mount Kumgang. Some Seoul officials indicated flexibility, but no decisions were made yet.

   "The North Korean nuclear issue is not connected to the issue of whether to resume the Mount Kumgang tour program," Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho said Tuesday. If Seoul had placed the issue within the multilateral context on the North's nuclear weapons program, a solution would be a more distant prospect.

   Seoul suspended the Mount Kumgang tours, operated by Hyundai Asan Corp., in July last year after a South Korean woman was shot to death by a North Korean soldier after straying into an off-limits military zone.

   The tour program, run by South Korea's Hyundai Asan Corp., had been a cash cow for the impoverished North, which is now under financial and other sanctions imposed by the U.N. after its nuclear test in May. According to data from Hyundai Asan, the firm has paid North Korea a total of US$487 million in tour fees since it launched the program in 1998. Hyundai has spent an additional $714 million to build the resort and facilities.

   More than 1.9 million South Koreans have visited the Mount Kumgang resort.

   The Koreas agreed to frequently hold family reunions in their historic first summit in 2000. More than 127,000 people in the South had since signed up for the reunions, but nearly a third of them have died due to old age. The competition rate is about 1 to 800.

   About 16,000 people have been reunited through face-to-face unions so far, while the number of separated family members in the South is believed to reach 600,000.

   A 75-year-old man, who was identified only by his family name of Lee, took his own life earlier this week after he failed to make the list of participants.

   Ordinary Koreans cannot exchange phone calls, letters or email across the border.