PICTURES

South Koreans head for bittersweet family reunion in North

Lee Hyo Kuk (left) is checked by medical staff after arriving at the Hanwha resort as South Koreans selected to attend family reunions with the North gather in the eastern port city of Sockcho on Feb 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Lee Hyo Kuk (left) is checked by medical staff after arriving at the Hanwha resort as South Koreans selected to attend family reunions with the North gather in the eastern port city of Sockcho on Feb 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A participant (right) of North and South family reunions leaves the lobby of his hotel prior to departing for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A participant (right) of North and South family reunions leaves the lobby of his hotel prior to departing for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Buses carrying attendees of a family reunion between North and South Korea leave the hotel in the eastern port city of Sokcho on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Buses carrying attendees of a family reunion between North and South Korea leave the hotel in the eastern port city of Sokcho on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man in a wheelchair is pushed towards a waiting bus preparing to depart for joint North and South Korean family reunions, in the eastern port city of Sokcho on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man in a wheelchair is pushed towards a waiting bus preparing to depart for joint North and South Korean family reunions, in the eastern port city of Sokcho on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Participants of North and South family reunions sit aboard a bus prior to departing for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Participants of North and South family reunions sit aboard a bus prior to departing for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Participants of North and South family reunions pass through the lobby of their hotel as they prepare to depart for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Participants of North and South family reunions pass through the lobby of their hotel as they prepare to depart for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho early on Feb 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SOKCHO, South Korea (AFP) - A group of 82 elderly, frail South Koreans, two of them in ambulances, left for the North Korean border on Thursday to attend the first reunion in more than three years for families divided by the Korean War.

Ten coaches, with half a dozen police vehicles as escorts, left the eastern port city of Sokcho at 8.30am (7.30am Singapore time) for the heavily-militarised border 50 kilometres away.

The departure was delayed as two female members of the group needed medical attention, and ended up being placed into ambulances for the journey.

More than a dozen were in wheelchairs and needed help boarding the buses, which they shared with 58 family members, brought along for physical as well as emotional support.

After crossing the world's last major Cold War frontier, there was another 30-kilometre drive to a resort on Mount Kumgang - the venue for the emotional reunion with 180 North Korean relatives they have not seen for more than 60 years.

"I think when I see her face, I won't believe it's real," Mr Kim Dong Bin, 81, said of the elder sister he left decades ago in Pyongyang.

"I wonder if I will be able to recognise her immediately? It's been so long," Mr Kim said.

All carried bags stuffed with gifts, ranging from basic medicines, to framed family photos and packets of instant noodles.

Some brought bags of fresh fruit which they planned to offer in a joint prayer ceremony with their reunited siblings to their late parents.

"The gifts I'm bringing to my sister should be good. Something you can't see much in North Korea so I hope she will be happy," said Kim Se Rin, 85.

"I've also included some US dollars for her and my younger brother," Kim said.

The reunion event at Mount Kumgang was the result of tortuous, high-level negotiations between Pyongyang and Seoul, which nearly broke down over the North's objections to overlapping joint military exercises between South Korean and the United States.

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 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.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but the waiting list has always been far larger than the numbers that could be accommodated.

For many, time simply ran out, and last year alone 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died without ever seeing their relatives.

For those who drove to Mount Kumgang on Thursday, the moment they have longed and prepared for over the years will finally come at a mass reunion gathering in one of the resort's main halls at around 3pm (2pm Singapore time).

There will be a dinner in the evening, and then private reunions between the divided relatives on Friday.

For all the joy the reunion brings, it is tempered by the realisation that, with an average age of 84, the farewell on Saturday will be final.

"This will be our first and last reunion," Mr Kim Dong Nin acknowledged, shaking his head.

All the South Korean participants had spent the night in a Sokcho hotel, where they were given an "orientation" course by South Korean officials listing a series of dos and don'ts for their stay in Mount Kumgang.

"They were basically telling people not to discuss any political issues and not to be swayed by North Korean propaganda," said Mr Kim's wife, Shin Myung Soon.

The Kumgang event will be the first reunion since the programme was suspended following the North's shelling of a South Korean border island in 2010.

A reunion had been planned at the same venue for last September, but was cancelled at the last minute by North Korea.

The emotional meetings with 180 North Korean relatives will last until Saturday, after which the South Korean group will return home.

Then a selected group of 88 North Koreans will travel to Mount Kumgang to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday to Tuesday.

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