North, South Korea wrap up bittersweet family reunion

Park Yang-Kon (R) of South Korea bids farewell to his brother Park Yang-Soo (L) of North Korea as he prepares to depart the North Korean resort area of Mount Kumgang on the third and final day of the first group of family reunion between North and South Korea on February 22, 2014.

SEOUL - North and South Korea wrapped up Tuesday their first reunion for divided families in more than three years, an event that raised hopes of a sustainable improvement in volatile cross-border ties.

More than 350 South Koreans said a final farewell to 88 North Korean relatives, concluding a second round of meetings for those separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

That the six-day reunion went ahead at all was seen as something of an achievement, given the North's angry condemnation of overlapping South Korea-US military exercises that began on Monday.

Pyongyang's demands that the joint drills be either cancelled or postponed had put the reunion at risk, but a rare concession from the North allowed the meeting to go ahead following the highest-level talks between the two rivals in seven years.

With the reunion over, the question now is where the two sides go from here in order to maintain the momentum towards greater cooperation.

South Korea has already made some gestures in recent days, approving a number of privately-organised aid deliveries to the North and offering official assistance in curbing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

But observers say Pyongyang will be looking for bigger ticket financial rewards for what it sees as its humanitarian largesse in allowing the reunion to go ahead.

Pyongyang has been pushing Seoul for some time to resume South Korean tours to its Mount Kumgang resort - trips that provided much-needed hard currency in the past.

South Korea suspended the tours after a tourist was shot dead in 2008 by North Korean guards after she strayed from the designated path.

Much will depend on how the North reacts to the just-launched, annual South-US military drills which run until April 18.

Last year's exercises fuelled a sharp, protracted surge in military tensions, with North Korea issuing apocalyptic threats of nuclear strikes against the South and the United States.

So far, Pyongyang's criticism has been relatively understated, but that could change if the financial benefits sought by the North show no sign of appearing.

Lurking tensions

In a reminder of the tensions that always lurk beneath the surface, Seoul's defence ministry announced that a North Korea patrol boat had intruded over the disputed western maritime border several times on Monday night.

No shots were fired and the North Korean vessel returned to its side of the border after repeated warnings from the South's navy.

"We suspect this was aimed at testing our military preparedness," a defence ministry spokesman said.

The six-day family reunion at Mount Kumgang was also a very human reminder of the continuing personal cost of Korean rivalries more than six decades after the conclusion of the Korean War.

For those lucky enough to be chosen, it was a hugely emotional event, as they came face-to-face with elderly relatives they hadn't seen since childhood, and younger family members they didn't even know existed.

Because the Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two countries remain technically at war, and there is almost no direct contact permitted between their civilian populations.

Millions of Koreans were separated by the war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the waiting list has always been far larger than the numbers that could be accommodated.

For many people, time simply ran out. Last year alone 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died.

In a national televised address to mark her first year in office on Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the bittersweet experience of those attending the reunion reflected the pain of the Korean peninsula's continued division.

Park used her speech to announce the creation of a special committee under her direct control to work out a "systematic and constructive" blueprint for reunification.

"For true peace... it is necessary to make preparations for reunification that will open a new era on the peninsula," she said.

Family reunions in Korea