It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone who is not Korean to comprehend the intensity of the reunions held this week in Seoul and Pyongyang. The photographs and news reports convey only a sliver of what happened as families were reunited after a half-century of division. Even the delicate choreography and rigid protocol could not obscure the pain of the Korean people. The outpouring of emotions testifies to the depth of the Korean tragedy and the hope that all of the families will soon be reunited.

It is estimated that there at least 7 million families in South Korea with ties to the North. Apart from a small reunion of 50 people from each side in 1985, there has been no direct contact between residents of the two countries: no mail, no phone calls. no visits. Instead, the two governments fed their citizens a diet of unrelenting hostility in a perverse attempt to solidify divisions between the two countries. Sadly, they succeeded.

This week’s historic meetings are the product of the courage shown by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. He dared to break with the past and reach out to his counterpart in the North, Mr. Kim Jong Il. In an equally bold move, North Korea’s leader reciprocated. The two men held an unprecedented summit in mid-June, at which they agreed to the reunions as part of package of tentative reconciliation measures.

Nearly 80,000 South Koreans applied to be selected as the 100 participants in the reunions. The winners were selected by computer, based on age and relationship. Participants from the North were chosen by unknown criteria, but unlike the South Koreans, the visitors seemed to be prominent individuals, chosen more for party loyalty than anything else.

The meetings have been carefully scripted. Every detail has been covered, from the number of people allowed in each group, to how much time they could be together, what they could talk about and when and where they could meet. Yet from the moment that Air Koryo Flight 62 touched down at Kimpo Airport, the first North Korean commercial airliner to ever land on a South Korean runway, emotions have overflowed. The scenes have been both heart warming and heart-rending: The reunion lasts just four days and there is no guarantee that there will be more, or that the families now reunited will ever meet again.

Yet, there is a feeling that a corner has been turned. Last week, the heads of South Korean media organizations visited the North where they met Mr. Kim in Pyongyang. This week of national reconciliation, coinciding with the 55th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule, began with the reopening of liaison offices in Panmunjom on the demilitarized zone, the two nations’ only direct channel of communication. North Korea’s Mr. Kim also promised to allow the opening of a land route between Seoul and Kaesong, an ancient capital, as well as the reopening of a railway that will link the two countries.

It is too early to call this the beginning of a new era, but the reunions do lay the foundation for change. As Mr. Ronald Meinardus explains in his article on this page, people-to-people contact paved the way to German reunification. Politicians may set the pace, but once bridges are built, they are difficult — if not impossible — to tear down. That is why the division of the two Koreas was so absolute. The leaders of both Koreas knew that they had to keep their people in the dark about conditions across the border if the peninsula was to stay divided.

They are not the only ones to blame, however. Japan must shoulder responsibility for its occupation of the peninsula, as former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata acknowledged earlier this week. In a speech to an international conference, Mr. Hata said “that the main reason why the unfortunate situation exists on the Korean Peninsula is due to Japan’s action prior to and during World War II.” That history places a special obligation on this nation to assist Korean efforts to reunify.

The United States, the Soviet Union and China must also acknowledge complicity. The Cold War was made real in the division of the peninsula. Both superpowers armed and supported their proxies. They preferred the purity of ideological confrontation to a messy compromise that could have bridged the two Koreas. The governments in Washington, Moscow and Beijing must do all that they can to bring the two sides together.

Of course, the two Koreas must want to reunite, and they must do so on terms that are acceptable to all Koreans. Working them out promises to be a long and difficult process. There is no room for illusions about what lies ahead. But this week’s joyous reunions are proof that the once unthinkable is possible.

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