Separated families get some privacy

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Separated families get some privacy

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On an ambulance, 91-year-old father Kim Seom-gyeong bids a farewell to his 66-year-old son Jin-chon from the North yesterday. Kim, the oldest man in the South Korean group, had to depart earlier due to his health condition. [NEWS1]

Long-separated North and South Korean families were given six hours to chat and exchange gifts with each other starting at 9 a.m. yesterday, the second day of reunions for those split during the 1950-53 Korean War, in Mount Kumgang, North Korea.

Over six hours, 80 South Koreans who were forced to part with their families, along with 56 members of their immediate relations from the South, met yesterday with 170 of their long-lost kin from North Korea.

They were broken up for a private meeting in the morning, followed by a group lunch prepared by South Korea and another meeting in the afternoon.

Some cases in this year’s reunions also include family members from South Korea who were abducted by the North Korean regime decades ago.

Two South Koreans, Kim Seom-gyeong, 91, and Hong Sin-ja, 83, who met their siblings in an ambulance on Thursday because of ill health, had to return to South Korea yesterday following their private encounters as their conditions had worsened.

The families were allowed to exchange gifts during the morning meeting as part of the event’s itinerary. South Koreans mostly brought everyday necessities, including duck down jackets, undergarments, snacks, nutritional supplements and medicines, in consideration of the cold weather and bad economic situation in North Korea.

Notably, Choco Pie, a chocolate-coated sponge cake with marshmallow filling, manufactured by confectionery producer Orion, was the most popular item brought by South Koreans.

Family members of Lee Myung-han, 89, said they carried 16 Choco Pie boxes. “Choco Pies are immensely valuable, we heard,” one of them said.

“Those working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea said they save two Choco Pies every day so they can sell them later to make a profit.”

Meanwhile, North Korean families presented unified packages with three different kinds of liquor, scarves and a tablecloth embroidered with cranes, a symbol of longevity. “Our suryeongnim [national leader, a reference to Kim Jong-un] has prepared all of these,” they announced when handing them to their South Korean relatives.

The reunions prompted talks that the event should be made routine, primarily because the number of separated families is enormous and most of the applicants are elderly. Even though 129,264 South Koreans have applied to meet their separated family members on the opposite side of the peninsula, 57,784 - or 44.7 percent of them - died since the end of last year.

An annual average of 3,800 people has died since 2003, according to government statistics, and many of the remaining 71,480 survivors are already too old or too sick to go.

Yesterday, main opposition Democratic Party Chairman Kim Han-gill, whose mother is from North Korea, stressed the need for separated families to meet more often. President Park on Tuesday also called for a fundamental measure that would enable family reunions to take place with more regularity.

A report released Thursday from the Hyundai Research Institute, a private think tank run by Hyundai Group, shows that in order for all the remaining survivors to meet their siblings in the North, the number of people allowed to attend reunions would have to be dragged up to more than 6,600 per year.

The report also predicted that separated family members who are 70 years old or more now would likely only have another 10 years left, with the average remaining life expectancy for those in their 70s and 80s at 9.6 years.

“It is necessary for the South Korean government to proceed with negotiations with its North Korean counterpart over regular reunions sessions .?.?. taking advantage of high-level conversation channels recently established,” said Chung Sung-jang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a nonprofit think tank devoted to national security and inter-Korean issues.

Separated families will wrap up their trip today. They are scheduled to spend one hour together before departure.

BY SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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