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Korean family members rediscovering each other

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SEOUL, South Korea — Oh Young Jae, a 64-year-old North Korean poet, placed an image of his late parents sandblasted onto a stone panel on a table in his Seoul hotel room.

He bowed deeply three times and said, "Mother, didn't you say that you would live long enough to meet me?"

The somber scene Wednesday was one of many played out on the second day of temporary reunions between 100 visiting North Koreans and their relatives in the South after decades of separation.

Near Oh sobbed the elderly brother and sister with whom he was reunited 50 years after the chaos of war drove them apart.

Their mother, Kwak Aeng-soon, died in 1995 at age 84, long before Oh had the rare opportunity to visit family members on the other side of a sealed border.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, similar reunions involving 100 South Koreans were under way in a gesture of reconciliation between two governments that once vowed to destroy each other.

The meetings at a five-star Seoul hotel between frail, wizened family members, divided by a Cold War conflict that for decades had seemed intractable, offered quiet moments for people to grow familiar with relatives who were as much strangers as loved ones.

While intensely emotional for the participants, the four-day reunions are viewed as an important gesture of good will between the communist North and the democratic South that builds on a historic summit between their leaders in June.

In a room at a Pyongyang hotel, 81-year-old Lee Hwan-il met his 80-year-old wife, Choi Ok-kyun, for the first time since she urged him to flee south in January 1951 to escape advancing Chinese troops during the Korean War.

For Lee, the reunion was bewildering as well as blissful when he discovered that his wife would not speak.

Lee gave her a gold ring, held her hand and said: "I thought she had died. I am so happy she is still alive. We have a lot to talk about, but I am at a loss because she doesn't talk."

Some family members suffer from mental illnesses that have prevented them from recognizing their anguished relatives.

In another Pyongyang hotel room, Chae Sung-shin, 72, sat with his 62-year-old sister, Chae Jong Yol, whom he had not seen since he went to Seoul to study just before the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean war. Sung-shin played a tape recording of greetings from his wife and children.

"As I speak to this tape recorder, I don't feel you are a stranger at all because my husband has always talked about you," Sung-shin's wife said on the tape. His daughter followed: "Hi, auntie. Dad has always talked about you, and it must be his happiest day ever to see you."

Jong Yol listened, her head slightly bowed. Her shoulders began shaking and she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Her brother hugged her.

In Seoul, North Korean Ryang Han Sang confronted the agony of being unable to see his 87-year-old mother, Kim Ae-ran, because she was too sick to make the 30-minute ambulance ride from her apartment to his hotel.

Under strict guidelines laid out by the two governments to avoid politically awkward incidents, visiting family members are not allowed to visit relatives' homes, their hometowns or ancestors' graves.

"If I don't see my mother, then it would have been better if I had not come to South Korea," said Ryang, 69, who was reunited with his two South Korean brothers.

"I talked to her on the phone yesterday and I couldn't stop crying. I told her that I wanted to see her and that there are a lot of things to talk about after being separated for 50 years," he said plaintively.

Mo Sook-ja, the 89-year-old sick mother of another North Korean visitor, was able to travel in an ambulance to the hotel where her son was staying, but she was too stricken with Alzheimer's disease to recognize him.

"It's me, mother," wailed her 66-year-old son, Ahn In Taek. "I am so sorry that I came late."

Under reunion rules, only five South Korean relatives are allowed to meet each visiting North Korean family member. Excluded from the list, the nephew of one North Korean ran with his 16-month-old son to a bus about to depart with his uncle from a lunch. Separated by the bus window, the baby and the old man kissed through the glass.

Politics intruded on the reunions, with some North Koreans praising their leader, Kim Jong Il, the beneficiary at home of a personality cult that accords him a nearly godlike status.

"I still cannot believe this is taking place. I still wonder whether I am dreaming," said North Korean Yoo Jang Soon, 68, who met three sisters in Seoul.

"I was born here in the South, but my real hometown is in the North, where I and my family are living a happy life in the benevolent care of the Great Leader Kim Jong Il."