SEOUL: A group of 82 mostly elderly South Koreans accompanied by family converged on Wednesday on a coastal resort prior to crossing into North Korea for the first reunion in more than three years for the peninsula’s divided families.
Having had their hopes shattered when Pyongyang cancelled a previous reunion last September, many had been wary of the agreement to hold a gathering from Thursday at a mountain retreat in North Korea.
The accord almost fell apart when the North took exception to overlapping joint military drills by South Korea and the United States, and was only saved by some rare high-level talks last week.
The group travelled Wednesday to the resort near the eastern port city of Sokcho, where they were to spend the night before crossing the heavily-fortified border nearby.
With an average age of 84, they were accompanied by 58 family members for physical and emotional support.
The frailty of the participants was underlined Wednesday when one man, 83-year-old Lee Kun-Su, was forced to pull out at the last minute because of health issues.
The reunion at a complex on North Korea’s Mount Kumgang will be the first of its kind since 2010.
Lee Ok-Ran, 84, said she had barely been able to sleep at the prospect of seeing the two sisters she left behind in the North’s western province of Hwanghae.
South Korean TV showed her at home carefully packing bundles of gifts, ranging from underwear and analgesic patches to Choco Pies — a South Korean chocolate and marshmallow biscuit snack.
“I’ve heard Choco Pies are popular and expensive in the North”, Lee said.
“Ok-Bin, Ok-Hi, I’m waiting to hug you hard and dance together,” she said looking into the camera and calling her sisters’ names.
Kim Se-Rin, 85, worried whether he would be able to recognise his sister when he finally meets her.
“She’s 81 now, I wonder what she looks like,” he said, as he packed his belongings in the family car in Seoul for the drive to Sokcho.
“I have waited 64 years for this,” said Kim, who left his home in North Korea after the outbreak of war in 1950 in order to join the South Korean army.
“This is it. My last chance,” he told AFP.
Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.
Because the Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.
Around 71,000 South Koreans are wait-listed for a chance to take part in one of the reunion events, which select only a few hundred participants at a time.
The reunion programme began in earnest in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit.
Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.
But the programme was suspended in 2010 following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island.
The Mount Kumgang reunion with 180 North Korean relatives will last until Saturday, after which the South Korean group will return home.
Then a group of 88 selected North Koreans will travel to Mount Kumgang to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday to Tuesday.
For the vast majority it will be the last contact they ever have with each other.
Last year alone, around 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died without ever realising their dreams.
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