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Tuesday, 15 August, 2000, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Long wait over for Korean relatives
South Koreans are briefed on their visit to North Korea
South Koreans have been briefed ahead of their trip
Hundreds of Koreans have been reunited with loved ones they have not seen for 50 years.

South Korean woman hoping to meet long lost North Korean relatives
It is an emotional time for many Koreans
The short visits are part of agreements reached by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at their historic Pyongyang summit in June.

Among those chosen out of tens of thousands of applicants to take part are Lee Sun-haeng and Lee Song-ja.

For the past half-century, the couple, both in their 80s, had no idea if their relatives in the North were even still alive.

Boxes of gifts for the North Korean relatives
South Koreans have lots of gifts for their relatives
"We're spending about a thousand dollars on gifts," Mr Lee Sun-haeng told the BBC, "But it's worth it."

However, their joy is mixed with sorrow and regret.

"The fact that our families are still alive and that we're both going - it's a miracle of miracles and a gift from God," Mr Lee said. "At the same time, there's a feeling of guilt... guilt before happiness.

"Even animals look after their offspring. I only have guilt for not being able to look after my children."

One man, 86-year-old Lee Yong-Chan, from the western port of Inchon, said he was so excited about meeting his long-lost wife and children in the North that he had had to take a sleeping pill.

"I tossed and turned all night long because I was just too excited," he said.

Taboo

Despite the thaw in North-South relations, the conditions for the meetings are still very strict.

The visit only lasts for four days, during which the two groups of relatives will be reunited with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands or wives - many of whom they have not seen since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Refugees leaving the North
1.2 million people fled the North at the end of the war
They will be allowed to meet up to five family members a total of six times.

In the South, organisers have been making efforts not to upset the visitors from the communist North by removing Western items such as whisky from their hotel rooms and replacing them with Korean tea and liquor.

They have also advised South Koreans to be careful when choosing gifts for their relatives.

Underwear, socks and basic medication are recommended, but anything with English written on it is considered taboo.

South Koreans have been told their relatives would probably most welcome US dollars.

Same blood

An estimated 7.6 million South Koreans have relatives in the North.

These reunions are part of what is being called "Reconciliation Week", aimed at cementing ties between the two long-time foes.


"We have the same blood, the same nation and the same mind," reads a banner at the COEX Convention Centre in Seoul where the Southern reunions are taking place.

At the same time as the reunions are taking place, another group of people living in the South is also heading North.

They are Communist sympathisers who were jailed in the South as spies.

Shin In-young - jailed for 31 years - is among 60 or so former prisoners returning to North Korea, where he will see his family. He has cancer and wants to see his relatives.

However, his elderly mother, Ko Bong-hee, who also lives in South Korea, is not allowed to accompany him on his journey.

She is distraught. "I want to meet my daughter-in-law, I want to see her face, to see how kind she is. I want to see my grandchildren. It is my one wish before I die," she cries.

Releases

Last year, the government released the final group of long-term Communist prisoners.

They had spent decades in jail. Many were beaten and tortured, yet refused to sign letters renouncing their political beliefs.

But the decision to allow them to go back has proved controversial. Some want South Koreans held in the North exchanged in return.

From her flat in southern Seoul, Choi Woo-young runs a website highlighting the plight of hundreds of South Koreans kidnapped by the North.

She was just a teenager when her father - a fisherman - was abducted by the North Korean military.

Like so many other separated relatives, she hopes that her family may also soon be reunited.

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See also:

14 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Koreas begin 'reconciliation week'
08 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Koreans prepare for historic reunions
04 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mixed feelings before Korea reunions
13 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea hails closer ties
31 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Koreas reach breakthrough deal
19 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: North Korea sets its price
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