(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
SEOUL, South Korea — More than 430 South Koreans crossed into North Korea on Saturday to reunite with relatives separated by the Korean War, just a day after troops exchanged gunfire in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the countries.
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The South Koreans — mostly in their 80s — were to meet with the North Koreans in the North Korean resort of Diamond Mountain for three days before returning home, according to South Korea's Red Cross.
The reunions are emotional for Koreans, as most participants are elderly and are eager to see loved ones before they die. More than 20,800 family members have had brief reunions in face-to-face meetings or by video since a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens across the heavily fortified border.
The reunions — the first in more than a year — came a day after North Korea fired two rounds at a South Korean guard post in the Demilitarized Zone and South Korean troops immediately fired back. No injuries were reported.
The shooting came just hours after North Korea threatened to retaliate for South Korea's refusal last week to hold military talks with its wartime rival.
The exchange lasted just a few minutes but highlighted the security challenges South Korea faces as it prepares to host next month's Group of 20 summit in Seoul, just 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the border.
The shooting underscores the unusual — almost surreal — world South Korea inhabits: Though a major global economy and a political leader in Asia with one of the highest standards of living in the world, the South is still technically at war with the North because their conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Tens of thousands of troops stand guard on both sides of the border dividing the Koreas.
Communist North Korea has a track record of provocations against South Korea at times of internal change, external pressure or when world attention is focused on Seoul.
"The North wants to show the world that military tension grips the Korean peninsula," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul's Dongguk University.
In 1987, a year before Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, North Korean agents planted a bomb on a South Korean plane, killing all 115 people on board. In 2002, when South Korea was jointly hosting soccer's World Cup along with Japan, a North Korean naval boat sank a South Korean patrol vessel near their disputed western sea border.
Analyst Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a private security think
tank outside Seoul, agreed that the North was probably hoping to
humiliate South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the eve of the G-20.
But he remained cautious about whether the shooting was an isolated
incident or could signal further provocations against the South.
Tensions have been particularly high since the March sinking of a South
Korean warship in the waters off the peninsula's west coast. Forty-six
sailors died in the sinking, which an international panel blamed on a
North Korean torpedo; Pyongyang, however, denies involvement.
Shooting incidents at the border are infrequent; the last was in 2007,
when North Korean soldiers opened fire and the South shot back,
according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul.