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Amid US-South Korean war drills, Korean families meet across the divide

North Koreans stick to the script by praising their government and refusing gifts from their relatives in wealthy South Korea, where US troops have begun annual joint exercises.

SEOUL, South Korea — Hwang Duk-yong knew the words his two younger sisters would utter when he saw them for the first time in 63 years during a reunion of families divided by the Korean War.

“They talked about the North Korean regime,” Mr. Hwang told South Korean reporters covering the reunion last weekend. “They said, ‘Because of the generosity of the Workers’ Party,’ we are here.”

All of the North Koreans who have come to two sets of family reunions over the past few days have opened their conversations with their South Korean relatives with the same words. Clearly, the North Koreans were fully briefed in advance on what to say, according to South Korean officials responsible for arranging the event from their side.

Only after getting past these opening remarks can long-lost relatives talk about their lives. They know that their few hours together will be their last, and they’re eager for any gossip and news they can get, even if the account is worded to put the best face on life in North Korea.

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“Now I have to boast about my four sons,” said the older of Hwang’s two sisters at their meeting at the base of Mount Kumgang, North Korea, just over the North-South border.  “My first and second sons were able to go through 12 years of free education due to the generosity of the Workers’ Party. Then they joined the army, and now they are working. Since they were educated, they have good jobs.”

Her remarks, as Hwang related the conversation, ended on a typical North Korean propaganda theme. “Before we came here we stayed at a hotel for three days. This is due to the generosity of the party. Our wish is to reunify as soon as possible.”

Hwang’s account of the meetings showed the skill with which North Korea is attempting to turn the reunions to its negotiating advantage. The regime had threatened to cancel them because the US and South Korea were holding annual military exercises. 

Although the North Koreans praised their rulers in 18 previous reunions, South Korean officials say the ritual was wordier and more repetitive this time. North Korean authorities may have convinced themselves, it seems, that their elderly visitors would pass on both their relatives’ personal tales and the propaganda points that they recited at every meeting. 

As the second set of reunions in four days continued Monday, South Korean and American troops began military exercises that will last until mid-April. The war games consist of two stages: Key Resolve, a two-week, computer-based exercise for 5,200 US and 10,000 South Korean soldiers; and Foal Eagle, which begins in the second week of March, and will involve 7,500 Americans and more than 100,000 South Koreans in exercises ranging from simulated assaults to logistical, medical, and rescue operations. 

It’s unclear whether North Korea would agree to holding more reunions during the war games. To date, only about 18,000 people, among millions separated from relatives during the Korean War, have participated since the first such reunion held in 2000. The latest are the first since October 2010. 

Officials at South Korea’s unification ministry who are responsible for arranging the reunions are cautiously optimistic. When asked if meetings now might be possible on a monthly basis, a ministry official responded, “We hope so.”

‘We have all this at home’

The numbers who get to go are relatively small. Eighty-two South Koreans went to Mount Kumgang on Thursday for three days of reunions with more than 100 North Koreans. On Sunday, 88 North Koreans went to Mount Kumgang, where they met more than 350 South Koreans, many of them younger family members and guardians of the relatives found in the South. 

The South Koreans who went on Thursday were selected via a lottery run by the South Korean Red Cross. The North Koreans who arrived on Sunday were ostensibly selected by the North Korean Red Cross, though South Korean officials suspected that many were chosen as rewards for years of loyal service to the regime.

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“We are grateful about this family reunion,” said Hwang, but he seemed a little frustrated when his younger sister not only thanked the party but also praised North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, for his “achievement.”

In fact, according to South Korean pool reports, some South Korean family members grew increasingly annoyed by the ritual praise. “We’re sick and tired of hearing that,” one pool report quoted a South Korean as saying. “Three days is enough. We have been hearing them repeat the same thing all the time.”

Some of the North Koreans surprised their relatives from the South by spurning the gifts that they had been carrying for them in identical small gray suitcases. “We have all of this at home,” several North Koreans were quoted as saying, turning down presents of clothes and food. “Why do you bring it?” 

One of the South Koreans reportedly responded, “We’ll be glad to take it back.”