- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

SEOUL | Lee Dong-un cried and held the hands of his 60-year-old North Korean daughter Saturday during their first meeting in more than half a century. They were one of hundreds of families reuniting as part of a program revived by Pyongyang in an effort to ease tensions with South Korea.

The meeting was bittersweet for Mr. Lee, who left behind his pregnant wife and daughter, then 2 years old, in North Korea when he fled to the South during the Korean War. The 84-year-old burst into tears after his daughter told him his pregnant wife was killed when a bomb fell on her North Korean town.

“I always thought about you. I’ve never dreamed that we could meet,” Mr. Lee said, according to South Korean media pool reports. No foreign journalists were invited to the reunions.

The reunions are the first between the divided countries in nearly two years. Pyongyang suspended the program in 2007 in retaliation for conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s get-tough policy toward the North.

The resumption of the program is widely seen as the North’s latest olive branch toward rival South Korea. In recent weeks Pyongyang has reached out to Seoul by freeing five detained South Koreans, agreeing to “energize” a troubled joint industrial project and restarting suspended tours for South Koreans to the North.

Mr. Lee was among about 200 families from both sides scheduled to hold six days of reunions with relatives they have not seen since the war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, in 1953, leaving the countries divided. The last reunions were held in October 2007.

More than 120 South Koreans arrived at the Diamond Mountain resort on North Korea’s east coast Saturday for the reunions, according to the Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs.

Millions of families remain separated following the Korean peninsula’s division in 1945 and the ensuing civil war. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens from the two Koreas, and they can’t travel to the other side of the peninsula without government approval.

The meetings are a highly emotional issue in the Koreas because most of those applying for the chance to see their long-lost loved ones are in their 70s or older, and are eager for a reunion before they die. Of 127,400 South Koreans who have applied since 1988, nearly 40,000 have already died, according to South Korea’s Red Cross.

The reunions began in 2000 following a landmark inter-Korean summit.

Saturday’s reunions also included two South Korean abductees and one South Korean prisoner of war in the North.

The two abductees - former South Korean fishermen whose ship was seized by North Korea in waters off the west coast 22 years ago - met their loved ones from the South.

“I never forget to think about my hometown and sister,” Roh Song-ho, one of the fishermen, told his South Korean sister. He married in North Korea, and brought his wife and daughter to the reunion.

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