Politics intrude at emotional Korean family reunion

SEOUL - Around 80 elderly South Koreans met privately Friday with North Korean relatives they hadn't seen for 60 years, but several complained the moment was tainted by political indoctrination.

On the second day of the first North-South reunion for more than three years of families divided by the Korean War, the relatives were allowed to meet on their own, without the TV cameras that intruded on their first emotional gathering the day before.

The event, held at a mountain resort in North Korea, was only secured after intense North-South negotiations, and has been seen by many as a possible first step towards improved inter-Korean cooperation.

It followed a rare concession from North Korea, which had originally threatened to cancel if the South and the United States pushed ahead with annual joint military drills that begin on Monday.

In an apparent goodwill gesture, Seoul on Friday approved the shipment by two private aid groups for close to $1.0 million (S$1.27 million) worth of tuberculosis medicine and powdered milk to North Korea.

After the private meetings, a number of the South Korean participants complained that their Northern relatives had felt obliged to deliver political sermons parroting Pyongyang's official propaganda.

"I was a bit worn out due to all their political comments," said Choi Don-Myung after the three-hour meeting with her brother and his daughter.

Choi also voiced surprise that they had refused to accept the gifts she had brought, saying they had all they needed.

Kim Dong-Bin, 81, said the two sisters he had come to see spent a substantial amount of time condemning the continued presence of US troops in South Korea.

"They heaped abuse on the US troops and said re-unification was only possible if they pull out," Kim said.

The 82 South Korean participants, with an average age of 84 and some so frail they had to be moved by ambulance, arrived at the resort midday Thursday after crossing the heavily-militarised border in a convoy of 10 buses.

After a brief lunch, they were led into a banquet hall where they first came face-to-face with the 180 North Korean relatives they had applied to see.

Some simply embraced and sobbed, while others stared and stroked each other's faces, seemingly unable to believe that they were in the same room.

Photos were exchanged and lovingly pored over, including old black-and-white ones of the family when it was together as well as brand new colour pictures of husbands, wives, children and grandchildren that neither side knew even existed.

Taking DNA samples

For some people, faded photos of infant siblings weren't enough.

One South Korean man who came to be reunited with a younger brother he could barely remember, insisted on taking some hair samples to confirm they really were related.

"I'm going to get some DNA tests done," he said.

Tens of millions of people were displaced by the sweep of the 1950-53 Korean War, which saw the frontline yo-yo from the south of the Korean peninsula to the northern border with China and back again.

The chaos and devastation separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.

Because the conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the numbers clamouring for a chance to participate have always far outstripped those actually selected.

For many people, time simply ran out. Last year alone, 3,800 South Koreans who had applied for reunions died.

Of the 82 South Koreans attending the current reunion, 14 needed wheelchairs and two were forced to return home a day early for health reasons.

One of those was Hong Sin-Ja, 84, who left after a private meeting with her younger North Korean sister.

"I want to go back together with my sister," Hong said before she was lifted into an ambulance for the journey back to the South.

"There is no way to describe how heartbroken and sad I feel. I'm worried even though she says she has been living well."

On Saturday comes probably the most traumatic moment of all: a farewell ceremony that both sides understand - given their advanced ages - marks the last time they will ever see each other.