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09 December 2023

Family reunion underway as S. Korea-US army drill looms


A second group of 350 South Koreans have crossed into North Korea to take part in a reunion for divided families Sunday, a day before South-US military drills that threaten to undo a recent upswing in cross-border ties.

The latest event -- held in the North's Mount Kumgang resort from last Thursday to Tuesday -- is the first reunion in more than three years for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

In the second and last round of the reunion, the southerners are set to meet their 88 North Korean relatives from Sunday to Tuesday.

The first batch of about 80 southerners returned home Saturday after a highly-emotive and tearful reunion with their 174 northern relatives, held from Thursday.

Ryoo Jung-Hee, 69, called it a "miracle" that her 81-year-old brother -- dragged to the army aged 17 and long believed dead -- was in the North and looking for her.

"We even had his death certificate issued long time ago... it was like a miracle when we heard he was alive and was looking for us," Ryoo said before departing Seoul on Sunday.

"I still can't believe this is real," she said.


Growing tension

The much-anticipated event is held amid growing tension over Seoul's joint military drill which has stirred intense criticism of the US by Pyongyang.

The South is set Monday to begin its annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises with the US, which both allies describe as defensive in nature.

But the North has habitually condemned them as a prelude to war and threatened earlier this month to cancel the reunion if Seoul pushes ahead with the planned exercises.

The North however later agreed to go ahead with the reunion, seen as a concession aimed at improving ties.

Relations were icy last year when the North issued a series of threats targeting Seoul and cancelled the planned family reunion in September, citing Seoul's "hostilities".

The North's state Rodong newspaper on Saturday continued to heap criticism on the drills, accusing Washington of trying to hamper the improvement of cross-border ties.

"The US is welcoming the family reunion only with words... but its Secretary of State, during a recent visit to the South, emphasized that the joint drills should go ahead as planned," it said in an editorial.

"It is a vicious attempt to hobble the latest breakthrough we arranged in order to improve inter-Korea relations," it said.

Millions of people were separated from their spouses, parents, children and siblings during the chaos and devastation of the conflict six decades ago.

Two Koreas still remain technically at war after the conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, with cross-border mail, phone calls or other civilian communications banned.

Most of the separated families have died without seeing or hearing from the loved ones again, with only 71,000 -- mostly aged over 80 -- still alive and wait-listed for the highly competitive reunion spots.

Only about 100 people on each side are chosen for each reunion based on a random lottery.

Even in the latest reunion, some who won the lottery gave up the chance due to failing health, while two -- aged 91 and 83 --  soldiered on and travelled to the North in ambulances.

Six aged participants from the South had to cut the reunion short and were sent to hospital due to medical conditions worsened by long travel and emotional shock.