The 92-year-old South Korean woman wept and stroked the wrinkled cheeks of her 71-year-old North Korean son Monday, their first meeting since they were driven apart during the turmoil of the 1950-53 Korean War.
"How many children do you have? Do you have a son?" Lee Keum-seom asked her son Ri Sang Chol during their long-awaited encounter at the North's Diamond Mountain resort.
The emotional reunion came after dozens of South Koreans — mostly in their 70s or older — crossed the heavily fortified border into North Korea to meet with their relatives. The weeklong event, the first of its kind in nearly three years, was arranged as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts amid a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Hugging the woman he'd last seen when he was 4, Ri showed his mother a photo of her late husband, who had stayed behind in North Korea with him after being separated from his wife while fleeing south. "Mother, this is how my father looked," Ri said.
Before leaving for North Korea, Lee said she wanted to ask her son "how he grew up without his mom and how his father raised him."
The participants in the reunions are eager to see their loved ones once more before they die. Most have had no word on whether their relatives are still alive because they are not allowed to visit each other across the border or even exchange letters, phone calls or email.
About 90 South Koreans, accompanied by family members, will have three days of meetings with their North Korean relatives before returning to the South on Wednesday. A separate round of reunions from Friday to Sunday will involve more than 300 other South Koreans, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
During Monday's meeting, many elderly Koreans held each other's hands and wiped away tears with handkerchiefs while asking how their relatives had lived. They showed photos of family members who couldn't come to their meetings.
Han Shin-ja, a 99-year-old South Korean woman, was at a loss for words after she reunited with her two North Korean daughters, both in their early 70s. Not knowing their separation would be permanent, she left them behind in the North during the war while fleeing south with her third and youngest daughter.
She could only say "Ah" and "When I fled ..." before choking up.