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‘I’ve lived this long to meet you’: Korean families separated for decades reunite in North Korea

About 90 families from North and South Korea have wept and embraced as the neighbours held their first reunion events in three years for relatives wrenched apart by the Korean War for more than six decades.

Key points:

  • More than 500 family members from North Korea and South Korea are reunited
  • About 57,000 South Korean survivors have registered for family reunions
  • Reunions revived this year after standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program

About 330 South Koreans, many in wheelchairs, embraced 185 separated relatives from the North with tears, joy and disbelief.

Some struggled to recognise family not seen in more than 60 years.

"How are you so old?" Kim Dal-in, 92, asked his sister, Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence.

"I've lived this long to meet you," replied the 85-year-old, wiping away tears as she clasped a photograph of her brother in his youth.

Siblings Kim Gyong Sil, 72, and Gyong Yong, 71, wearing the traditional hanbok dress, coloured pale violet, stood nervously staring at the entrance, awaiting their 99-year-old mother Han Shin-ja.

They could not speak for minutes, wailed loudly and rubbed their cheeks and hands.

"When I fled home in the war … " Ms Han said, faltering as she choked with emotion and left her sentence incomplete.

Two men emotionally embrace.

The brief reunions are set to total just 11 hours over the next three days in the North's tourist resort of Mount Kumgang after exchanges were revived this year following a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the reunion events at a summit in April.

North and South Korean family members toast at a table.

'Let's live together for at least one minute'

Kim Sun Ok, an 81-year-old North Korean woman, said she found she and her 88-year-old brother from South Korea looked a lot like each other.

"Brother, it would be really good if Korean unification comes. Let's live together even at least one minute after unification before we die," the woman said tearfully.

The separated families are victims of a decades-long political gridlock since the 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, with ties increasingly strained as Pyongyang rapidly stepped up its weapons programs.

More than 57,000 South Korean survivors have registered for the family reunions, which usually end in painful farewells.

South Korean Cho Hye-do, 86, center, hugs her North Korean sister Cho Sun Do, 89, right, at the reunion.

The reunions should be scaled up sharply, held regularly, and include exchanges of visits and letters, said Mr Moon, himself a member of a separated family from the North's eastern port city of Hungnam.

"It is a shame for both governments that many of the families have passed away without knowing whether their lost relatives were alive," he told presidential secretaries at a meeting.

"Expanding and accelerating family reunions is a top priority."

From Thursday, 88 more groups of relatives will meet, comprised of 469 individuals from the South and 128 from the North, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

About 60,000 people applied to be part of the reunion, the first since 2015.

For Lee Jong-shik, 81, Monday's reunion was a hard-won second chance to track down his younger brother, Ri Chong Song, after the failure of a 2009 effort when a different individual showed up, to the dismay of the family from the South.

"I tried so hard, too, searching for you for seven years," Mr Ri told his brother.

Many brought gifts of clothing, medicine and food for their North Korean relatives, since anything deemed extravagant by Pyongyang was unlikely to pass muster.

Moon Hyun-sook, 91, said she put together clothes, cosmetics and medicine for her two sisters, younger than she is by 12 and 26 years.

"Whenever I saw pretty clothes, I always thought how cute they would look in them," she said.

Families will spend 11 hours together over the three-day reunion between North and South Koreans

Reuters/AP

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