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Reunited Korean families hold final farewells

SEOUL -- The joy of being reunited for the first time in decades turned to grief for North and South Korean families Saturday as a rare cross-border visit ended, with participants unlikely to ever see their relatives again.

In perhaps the most traumatic moment of the emotionally charged event, 80 elderly South Koreans and their 174 Northern relatives were separated, many at first refusing to let go of their loved ones' hands.

The families, the first of two batches who are being allowed to meet with each other 60 years after they were torn apart by the chaos of the 1950-1953 Korean War, were given an hour to say goodbye in a hotel dining room at a North Korean mountain resort.

At the start of Saturday's meeting, many were already in tears, while others forced smiles to hide pent-up emotions.

Some took pictures, exchanged old photos and jotted down addresses of their relatives — even though direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited across the border.

As the time for parting ways drew near, the atmosphere became more heated, punctuated by bursts of crying.

After boarding their coaches, the departing South Koreans waved through closed windows at the loved ones they were leaving behind in the North, displaying written messages and forming their hands into the shapes of hearts.

“I've been trying hard not to cry. Thank you for allowing me to see you alive and well. Stay healthy,” South Korean Lee Myeong-ho, 82, told his 77-year-old brother Lee Chol Ho from the North, clutching his hands tightly.

Park Yang-gon, 53, knelt down on the hotel floor and bowed before his elder brother Yang Soo, a South Korean fisherman kidnapped and taken to the North while fishing off the northwestern coast in 1972.

“We'll be able to meet again if you remain healthy,” Yang-gon said.

“We will meet again when reunification comes. Have faith in it,” his brother Yang Soo replied.

The families had spent a total of 11 hours on six occasions together since Thursday, including mass meetings over meals and a private reunion without media TV cameras.

This week's reunions, the first of their kind in three years, are widely being seen as a possible first step towards thawing cross-border ties.

With the first group now returning home, a second group of 88 North Koreans are set to travel to Mount Kumgang to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday to Tuesday.

No further reunions are scheduled.

The reunions program began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the numbers clamoring for a chance to participate have always far outstripped those actually selected.

For many people, time simply ran out. Last year alone, 3,800 elderly South Koreans who had applied for reunions passed away.

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Lee Gum-duck, of South Korea, right, bids farewell to her North Korean younger sister before returning to South Korea after the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea on Saturday, Feb. 22. (AP)

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