HUNDREDS of South Koreans will cross into North Korea today for emotional reunion with relatives after being torn apart during the war 65 years ago.
The reunions will take place in Mount Kumgang, as agreed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their first summit in April.
EPA Elderly South Koreans arrive at the Inter-Korean Transit Office as they cross to North Korea, for a reunion event for families separated by the Korean War
Most of the 180 families are victims of a decades-long standoff between the neighbours, which has escalated over the past several years as Pyongyang rapidly advanced its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire – not a peace treaty – and left the Korean Peninsula still in a technical state of war.
More than 57,000 South Korean survivors have registered for a brief family reunion, which lasts only 11 hours and often ends in painful farewells.
Many of them are war refugees born in North Korea who will be meeting their siblings or the infant children they left behind, and are now in their 70s.
Reuters Hundreds of South Korean families are making the trip to see relatives – most of whom they haven’t seen for 65 years
EPA Over 80 South Koreans make up the first group of people that will meet with their North Korean relatives in North Korea for three days this week
Reuters The reunions were agreed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their first summit in April
Moon Hyun-sook, 91, who will meet her younger sister, said: “I’m over 90 so I don’t know when I am going to die. I am very glad that I have been selected this time, I’m walking on air now.”
For years, Seoul has been calling for regular meetings between separated families including using video conferences, but the reunion programmes often fell victim to fragile relations with Pyongyang.
During his summit with US President Donald Trump in June, Kim pledged to abandon his country’s nuclear programmes if Washington provided security guarantees.
But the two sides have since struggled to agree on how to reach that goal.
EPA Many of those making the long journey over the border at elderly, with the oldest traveller aged 101
Reuters Relatives wait in line at a checkpoint as they prepare to see family members separated by war
Reuters An elderly woman sits in a wheelchair as she waits to see her family in North Korea
EPA Buses carrying South Koreans pass a military checkpoint as they travel to North Korea for a reunion event for families
South Korean family members arrived at the coastal border city of Sokcho on Sunday to be briefed by officials on the reunion and for a brief health check-up, before crossing the border on Monday.
Ninety-three families from both sides of the border were initially scheduled for a three-day gathering from Monday, but four South Korean members cancelled their trip to the North at the last minute due to health conditions, the Red Cross said.
Starting Thursday, there will be a meeting of another 88 groups of relatives, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
The brief family reunions, which began in 1985, can be a traumatic experience for the ageing survivors – the oldest is a 101-year-old South Korean, they say.
EPA It’s set to be an emotional reunion for many of those crossing into North Korea on Monday
Reuters Families wait with suitcases – some will be packed with gifts for their loved-ones
Reuters A South Korean participant for a reunion waves as she arrives at the South’s CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine), just south of the DMZ in Goseong, South Korea
Physician Han Sang-jo said: “Most participants are elderly and many of them are suffering from hypertension, diabetes and have underlying medical conditions.
“Ahead of the reunions, we are thoroughly checking their health conditions so that they can attend the events as planned.”
Many of the family members brought gifts for their North Korean relatives.
Socks, underwear, basic winter jackets, medicine, toothpastes and food are the most common items, with gifts deemed too extravagant unlikely to pass muster with Pyongyang authorities.
Kim Jong-un becomes first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea since 1953 as he attends historic summit with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in
Lee Soo-nam, 76, of South Korea, will meet his older brother in the North after they were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
He said: “I’ve prepared for him some household medicine including digester and headache pills, nutritional supplements as well as some daily necessaries.
“He is very old so I really want to express my gratitude for being alive for a long time.”
Past reunions have produced powerful images of elderly Koreans crying, embracing and caressing each other.
Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000.
Another 3,700 exchanged video messages with their North Korean relatives under a short-lived program from 2005 to 2007.