SEOUL • North and South Korean families were forced to say a final, traumatic farewell yesterday after meeting for the first time in more than 60 years, as the joy of temporary reunion gave way to the grief of permanent separation.
On the third and last day of their all-too-brief, emotionally charged reunion in a North Korean mountain resort, the families were given two hours in the morning to say their last goodbyes.
It was perhaps the most fraught part of the entire event, with relatives on both sides - especially the elderly in their 70s, 80s and even 90s - all too aware that this was likely the last time they would ever see one another.
Some spent their last minutes together simply clinging to one another, while others sought to put on a brave face, holding hands and wiping away tears as they sat at numbered tables in the resort's main banquet area. TV footage showed one elderly North Korean woman trying to keep the mood upbeat, challenging everyone at her table to an arm wrestle.
But then the North Koreans boarded buses to take them home, prompting desperate final scenes as they pressed their hands and faces to the windows, trying to maintain eye contact with their weeping South Korean relatives outside as the vehicles moved away.
It was only the second reunion to be held in the past five years, and interaction was tightly controlled - limited to six two-hour sessions, including meetings in a communal hall and private one-on-one time without TV cameras.
For the nearly 400 South Koreans and their 140 relatives taking part, the 12 hours of total face time was heartbreakingly short after more than six decades of separation caused by the 1950-53 Korean War.
"It would have been wonderful if we could have talked and slept in the same room, instead of just meeting on and off," said 70-year-old Han Sun Kyu, who was meeting his North Korean aunt. "And I wish we could have eaten meals just as a family, instead of in the big hall with everybody else."
For all the restrictions, the participants were the lucky ones, chosen from among tens of thousands on waiting lists for a reunion spot.
Millions of people were displaced by the Korean conflict, which separated brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives.
With the mortality rate of re-union candidates increasing with every passing year, many accept they may never be selected and have resorted instead to taping video messages - and providing DNA samples - that might allow for posthumous contact in the future.
At dinner on Wednesday, Madam Lee Jeong Sook, 68, asked her North Korean father, 88-year-old Ri Hong Jong, to sing a song so that she could remember his voice. He sang a popular song about the river close to his home town in the South, prompting everyone else at their table to burst into tears.
The departure from the resort marked the end of the first stage of the six-day reunion, with another group of families from both sides scheduled to meet from tomorrow to Monday.