- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Amid mounting tensions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, a group of aging South Koreans traveled to North Korea Sunday to meet with long-lost relatives.

The 99 South Koreans, most of them in their 70s or older, arrived in North Korea's sealed-off mountain resort using a newly-build road across the heavily armed border, instead of a sea route on cruise ship.

Families shed tears of joy when they were reunited with relatives they have not seen for a half century. They clutched each other, weeping and wailing, Seoul's televisions showed in a live broadcast from the North.

"Oh, my son. You are still alive," Park Kyu-sun, 76, cried as she embraced her 49-year-old son who was allegedly taken by North Koreans in 1972 while fishing in waters off the west coast. "Life was no better than death. The possibility that I might meet my sons was what sustained me," she told her long-lost son.

Like most of the North Korean family members who voiced political propaganda even at the highly emotional reunions, the son, Kim Tae-chun said he had "nothing to desire and was living happily" in the poverty-struck North.

Kim is among 7,034 people allegedly kidnapped by North Korea. The South Korean government also says it has a list of 351 South Korean prisoners of war presumed to be alive in the North.

Family reunions, the most tangible fruit of improved inter-Korean relations, have taken place a total of six times since the 2000 summit of their leaders. The 99 South Koreans would spend more time together with North Korean relatives before parting again Monday morning.

Millions of North Korean natives fled to the South after the peninsula was split into the communist North and the capitalist South in 1945. Thousands of South Koreans also went to the North during the war, many of them drafted into the communist country's army.

Sunday's emotional reunions were overshadowed by an international standoff over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons programs. South Koreans who have relatives in the North express hope that the family reunions and other inter-Korean reconciliation evens would ease tensions on the peninsula.

Despite its nuclear standoff, North Korea has actively pushed reconciliation with South Korea.

On Sunday, the North allowed 200 South Korean tourists to travel across the heavily armed border on the new road, marking the first overland route between the two Koreas since 1945.

In another reconciliation sign, North Korea expressed a rare condolence to South Korea over a subway fire that killed at least 133 people in Daegu.

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