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North Korea's Behavior at Family Reunions Draws Protest


South Korean reporters covering reunions of separated North and South Korean families say they are cutting their coverage early in protest over censorship by Pyongyang. In a controversy that has escalated over three days, North Korean authorities have interfered with South Korean news coverage, and prevented dozens of aged South Koreans from departing the North on schedule.

A group of 24 South Korean journalists said they would return from North Korea on Thursday, a day ahead of schedule, to protest Pyongyang's interference with their work.

The reporters were covering a visit by 149 elderly South Koreans to North Korea, for the latest in a series of reunions between relatives who have been kept apart for decades.

After fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953, many families were separated by the heavily fortified border between the two countries.

There are no direct postal or telecommunications links available to most people between North and South Korea, and travel across the border generally is not allowed.

The North's delegates at the reunion included three people South Korean officials say were abducted years ago by northern agents. South Korean groups say more than 400 people have been kidnapped by the North since end of the war. Pyongyang denies that and says a number of South Koreans have freely chosen to live in the North.

Han Soon-ku, a reporter for South Korea's SBS broadcast network, says trouble started Tuesday night when he called one of the family members an "abductee." North Korean officials insisted that he use the term "missing person".

According to news reports, when he refused, North Korean authorities pulled the plug on his satellite link, and would not let him and several other journalists continue their work.

North Korean authorities demanded he leave the country. On Thursday, they delayed the departure of the South Korean visitors for more than 10 hours, until that demand was met.

Arriving in the South, some of the family members vented their frustration.

One elderly man asks why he and other family members were dragged into the controversy, when it should have been resolved after their departure.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jeong-seok described North Korea's behavior as "regrettable" Thursday, saying it "would not be helpful" to inter-Korean cooperation. That is a rare criticism from a government that normally goes out of its way to promote reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Choi Woo-yeong is the president of a group called the Families of Abducted and Detained in North Korea. She says she feels the South's government shares some blame in this week's events.

She says she sees a sharp distinction between families that have been separated for historical reasons - the war, and families that have been separated by North Korean acts of criminal abduction. By allowing Pyongyang to mix the two groups, she says, South Korea has allowed the North a partial legitimacy for its actions.

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