Imjingak: On the frozen banks of the Imjin river, South Koreans divided from their families decades ago by war gathered today to pay respects to their ancestors.
Mostly elderly men — according to tradition, Korean ceremonies for the lunar new year must be carried out by the eldest son — they lined up before an altar piled with offerings of rice cakes, fruit and fish.
Shoeless despite the bitter cold, they each placed a flower on the stone, poured an offering of soju — rice wine and burned incense before prostrating themselves twice, forehead to the floor, and bowing deeply. Some walked away in tears.
Others held ceremonies of their own to pray for their relatives near the fence at Imjingak, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has marked the border since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Among them was Seo Jin-Sun, 87, whose father – a policeman during Japan’s colonial rule over Korea – was executed along with his son by Communist forces during the war.
She travelled southwards in 1951 only to discover that her husband — who had fled earlier was married to another woman.
Park Ju-Seong, her son from her second marriage, said the family came “to pay respects to my mother’s deceased relatives as Imjingak is the closest place to the North that we can get to”.
Every time they visit, he added, “my mother yearns all the more to return home and see her relatives there”.
Millions of family members were separated by the conflict, and most have since died without ever seeing or hearing from their relatives on the other side in the absence of civilian cross-border post and telephone communications.
A series of carefully managed reunions were held in past years, but with relatively few participants, and the last of them was in October 2015.
Relations between the two sides have since worsened as the North stepped up the nuclear and missile programmes that have seen it subjected to heightened United Nations sanctions.
Kim Young-Ki, 80, came to Imjingak, 53 kilometres (33 miles) from Seoul, to pay respects to his grandfather, who is buried in his home town of Kaesong, just north of the border.
Kim fled the city, along with his six siblings, parents and grandmother when South Korean and UN troops retreated in the face of a Chinese offensive in 1951.
“Whenever national holidays come around, I am haunted by the memory of my old home,” he told AFP.
“I myself shut and locked the gate door,” he said. “If I were put in Kaesong I would be able to find it quite easily. All the roads and back alleys are so vivid in my memory.”