SEOUL, South Korea – Hundreds of South Koreans crossed the border to the North on Tuesday for emotional three-day reunions with family members most hadn't heard from since the war between the countries more than 60 years ago.
About 390 South Koreans, some in wheelchairs, others leaning on walking sticks, made their way through an immigration office in Goseong, a South Korean town on the world's most heavily fortified border. They later traveled by bus to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, where the reunion will occur.
Lee Dong-im, 94, who is to be reunited with her brother-in-law in the North, said she's "choked with tears" just talking about him. "I don't know how I will feel when I meet him. I will only know that when I actually see him," she said before departing as she sat in a wheelchair.
The elderly South Koreans said they were taking long johns, medicine, parkas, calligraphy works and cash with them to give to their family members in the North as presents.
They will meet with their children, siblings, spouses and other relatives through Thursday. About 140 North Koreans were expected to show up, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
In a second round, from Saturday until Monday, about 250 South Koreans are to visit the mountain resort to reunite with about 190 North Korean relatives, the Unification Ministry said.
The reunions, the first since February of last year, are a poignant yet bitter reminder that the Korean Peninsula is still in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 fighting ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The Koreas bar ordinary citizens from visiting relatives living on the other side of the border and even from exchanging letters, phone calls and emails without government permission.
The rivals in August agreed to resume family reunions during talks to end a standoff caused when land mine blasts blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers. They have a history of failing to follow through with cooperation projects, but these reunions are happening because North Korea didn't go ahead with threats to conduct a satellite launch earlier this month. The launch would have likely canceled the reunions because Seoul and Washington see such firings as cover for banned tests of long-range missile technology.
The reunions are extremely emotional because most people who apply for them are in their 70s or older and are desperate to see their loved ones before they die. Nearly half of the 130,410 South Koreans who have applied to attend a reunion have died. Past reunions saw the elderly weeping and hugging each other and asking for details about their lives and other loved ones before being separated again.
Oh Cheol-ran, a 77-year-old South Korean, said Tuesday that before her parents died they always tearfully spoke of her brother who was left behind in the North. "I'm so happy to see him even now. I haven't been able to sleep well," Oh, dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok, said.
South Korea uses a computerized lottery system to pick participants while North Korea reportedly chooses based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.
Seoul has long called for drastically increasing the number of people taking part in reunions and holding them more regularly. North Korea, which often uses reunions as a bargaining chip in negotiations with South Korea, is worried about more reunions leading to the country being influenced by the more affluent South and undermining its grip on power.
At the same time, the venue for the reunions may reveal something about North Korea's aspirations. The Diamond Mountain resort, largely built with South Korean money, was once a major tourist draw for North Korea. It brought in nearly 2 million visitors, mostly South Koreans, and provided the government with much needed hard currency. That all ended when a North Korean soldier shot a South Korean tourist to death in 2008. Impoverished North Korea no doubt wants to restart tours.
Family reunions were part of a slew of now-stalled rapprochement projects the two Koreas agreed upon following first-ever summit talks between their leaders in 2000. About 18,800 Koreans have since participated in 19 face-to-face reunions and about 3,750 others have been reunited by video.
Associated Press video journalist Yong-ho Kim in Goseong, South Korea, contributed to this report.