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The BBC's Caroline Gluck in Seoul
"North Korean media have very much lauded their return"
 real 56k

Caroline Gluck reports from Seoul
"Despite their warming ties, the two countries remain technically at war"
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Saturday, 2 September, 2000, 05:58 GMT 06:58 UK
Korean communists go home
Bus with the 63 men
The bus carrying the 63 men pulls out of Seoul
A group of 63 elderly communist sympathisers have made an emotional return to North Korea after enduring decades in prison in the South.

All of them were accused of spying for North Korea and they were held in solitary confinement.

Shin In-young, 72, says goodbye to his mother
Many were beaten and tortured, but they all refused to renounce their political beliefs and have received a hero's welcome in the North.

Some wept as they left wives and other relatives in the South, who were not allowed to travel with them.

The former prisoners, ranging in age from 66 to 90, some in wheelchairs or on stretchers, crossed the border at 1000 (0100 GMT), passing through the truce village of Panmunjon in the Demilitarised Zone.

Hundreds of North Koreans met them at the other side, cheering and clapping.

"We warmly welcome the heroes who maintained their strong conviction," read one banner.

Going home

The former prisoners were given bouquets of flowers by schoolchildren and taken in Mercedes to a welcoming ceremony 200 metres away, where a brass band played revolutionary songs.

Cho Chang-son, 72, who spent 30 years in prison and has a wife and two children in the North, crossed the border on a stretcher.

"I only regret that I am going home in ill health," he said.

Woo Yong-gak
Woo Yong-gak spent 41 years in solitary confinement
"One night here (in Seoul) cost me 36 years," said 73-year-old North Korean Choi Ha-jong, released in 1998 after 36 years in prison as a convicted spy.

The final long-term prisoners were only released from prison last year.

Their return to the North was one of the agreements reached during the June summit talks between the two Korean leaders.

It is intended to promote reconciliation between the two Koreas, but there has been criticism from many in the South, who have argued that in return agreement should have been reached to exchange South Korean civilians and prisoners-or-war held in the North.

South Korea's Unification Ministry estimates that around 300 prisoners-of-war and 450 civilians, many of them fishermen, are forcibly detained in the North - a claim Pyongyang rejects.


Kim Suck-hyong bids a last farewell to a family member
Kim Suck-hyong bids a last farewell to a family member
The main opposition Grand National Party has accused the government in Seoul of being too soft on the North.

Family members of those allegedly abducted also say the government should work harder to secure the release of South Korean citizens.

About 150 South Korean demonstrators shouted, "Return kidnapped people" as two buses of North Koreans slowed to cross a bridge near Panmunjon

Earlier, in another step towards reconciliation between the North and South Korea, the two countries announced they had agreed to open a dialogue on military issues, but no details were released.

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See also:

16 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Koreas end propaganda war
15 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Long wait over for Korean relatives
13 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pyongyang reaches out
25 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Solitary: Tough test of survival instinct
25 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
'Happy to see the light'
22 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Seoul frees long-term prisoners
15 Dec 98 | Asia-Pacific
South Korean PoWs escape after 45 years
10 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Korea summit raises hopes
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