SEOUL, South Korea — Families separated by the Korean War more than 60 years ago held tearful reunions Thursday as the two Koreas seek to ease tensions that have remained high since the North detonated a nuclear device last year.
The emotional visits of more than 80 South Koreans with family members in the North illustrated both the hope for reconciliation and the depth of the division between the two countries that bar their citizens from having contact with their loved ones.
“Let me hold you in my arms,” 92-year-old South Korean Kang Neung-hwan told his 63-year-old son from North Korea upon meeting him for the first time.
The two men, both with stooped backs, cried as they clutched each other without a word, according to pooled media reports from the Mount Geumgang resort in North Korea where the reunions are held. Kang didn't find out until last year that his wife had been pregnant when he fled the North at the height the 1950-53 war.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described the resumption of reunions, last held in 2010, as the starting point for improved relations between the Koreas. Last week, officials from the two countries met inside the heavily armed demilitarized zone for the first high-level talks in years and the reunions survived North Korea's threat to pull out in protest over annual South Korean-U.S. military drills due to start next week.
In the first round of the reunions, the South Koreans chosen traveled to Mount Geumgang will spend less than 72 hours with the loved ones they will probably never see again. In the second part of the reunions, the North Koreans selected by their government will spend the same amount of time with relations from the South.
Millions of Koreans were separated from their families during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce and without a peace treaty. Only 1,700 South Koreans have been reunited with relatives through government efforts that began in 2000. A previous round due to be held in September, was canceled by the Kim Jong Un regime just days before they were set to start as relations soured.
Last week's bilateral talks “opened up potential for a broad range of agreements, including one on a summit at some point,” Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said by phone.
North Korea is already pushing for a revival of South Korean tours to Mount Geumgang. The resort once generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the cash-strapped North before tours from the South were suspended over the death of a tourist shot by a North Korean guard in 2008.
South Korea is open to talks on the tours although the issue should not be tied to family reunions, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters Jan. 10.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program remains the biggest stumbling block to improved relations, Seoul University's Chang said. The United Nations tightened economic sanctions against the North after it conducted its third nuclear test a year ago and the North then threatened nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea.
North Korea cites a military threat from the U.S. for continuing its nuclear program and has demanded talks on a peace treaty with the U.S. before stopping its arms development. The U.S. and South Korea say the North must show signs it's dismantling its nuclear program before they can agree to the restart of multinational negotiations last held in 2008.
The reunions also coincide with U.S. and South Korea military exercises set to begin on Feb. 24. The North's National Defense Commission led by Kim threatened to cancel the meetings earlier this month unless the exercises were annulled or delayed.
The start of the family visits also came a day after confirmation that John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary, had been detained in North Korea. The North has held another missionary, Korean-American Kenneth Bae, for more than a year and this month rescinded an invitation for a U.S. human rights envoy to travel to Pyongyang to discuss his release.