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For some Korean families, a long-awaited reunion

They prepared for days in advance, picking out special dresses or suits, dusting off family photographs, gathering small gifts. They traveled by bus through the snowy countryside and over the demilitarized border into North Korea.

And there, at a mountain resort, a group of elderly South Koreans reunited with relatives they hadn’t seen in six decades. Sisters met brothers. Fathers met daughters. One South Korean was so frail, he entered the ballroom on a stretcher.

The six-day family reunion, which began yesterday, marked a rare show of cooperation between the two Koreas, whose governments this month approved a new round of the humanitarian program after a three-year lapse. Though it is unclear whether the reunions will lead to a broader thaw, the resumption signaled that Pyongyang and Seoul at minimum have a shared interest in connecting long-lost relatives, whose separation is one of the enduring sorrows on this divided peninsula.

For many of the South Koreans attending the reunion, this chance to see their relatives is not just their first in decades, but likely their last. The 82 participants were chosen by computer-generated lottery from a waiting list of more than 70,000. The average participant was 84. Many arrived with canes or in wheelchairs, accompanied by younger guardians.

“Time is running out for all these elderly people,” said Hong Soon-ho, whose mother, Heo Kyeong-ok, 86, reunited with a younger sister.

Many of the participants, upon seeing their relatives, quivered or fell to the ground. They held hands. They wailed. Eventually, they shared photos and told family stories, in moments captured by South Korean television networks, which broadcast the reunions live. Many of the 180 North Koreans wore traditional, colorful dresses, called hanboks; all wore state-mandated pins on their left breast. Analysts say North Koreans participating in the reunions are forbidden from talking critically of their totalitarian government.

Two of those representing the North side yesterday were actually South Koreans; they were fishermen who were abducted by Pyongyang’s agents during the 1970s and have lived in the North ever since. According to Seoul, more than 500 such South Korean abductees are still in North Korea, prevented from returning home. The North Korean government says anybody within its borders is there voluntarily.

Before and during the Korean War (1950-53), more than a million Koreans criss-crossed the border, the result of a chaotic period in which some family members fled and waited for others to join them. Sometimes they left for financial or ideological reasons. Some wagered they’d find safety on the other side. A ceasefire, though, created an impermeable zone in the center of the peninsula, an area strung with barbed wire and dotted with land mines.

Because the war still technically continues - the North and South didn’t sign a treaty - Koreans on both sides are banned from sending mail or making phone calls across the border. Restrictions are particularly strict in the North, where even domestic travel and communication is monitored by state security agents.

In an authoritative report on North Koreans abuses released Monday, a United Nations panel recommended the North to allow separated families to unite, “including by allowing citizens to travel or emigrate where they choose.”

During a warmer period of inter-Korean relations, between 2000 and 2010, the North and South cooperated to hold 18 reunions. They attempted to resume the program last year, but the North called off the event at the eleventh hour. South Korean President Park Geun-hye last month tried to restart negotiations, saying it was time for families to “find healing for their pain.”

This time around, the North accepted, then almost backed out. North Korea’s concern this time were upcoming, annual South Korea-United States joint military exercises, which Pyongyang describes as a prelude to invasion. North and South Korea finally pledged to go ahead with the reunions last week in high-level talks - in spite of the war games.

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