Divided Koreans hold bitter-sweet family reunion
South Korean families sit aboard a bus on February 20, 2014 prior to departing for the North Korean border where they will be reunited with relatives many have not seen since the Korean War divided the peninsular - by Ed Jones
The first North-South family reunion for more than three years began around 3:00pm (0600 GMT) with a mass gathering in the main hall of a resort on North Korea's Mount Kumgang, a Unification Ministry official said in Seoul.
The event 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 Korea and the United States.
The South Korean group and the 180 North Korean relatives who have come to meet them were all scheduled to dine together, with more private reunions planned for Friday.
Officials in Seoul revealed Thursday that among the North Korean relatives were two fishermen who had been kidnapped by the North in the 1970s.
The South Korean group, with an average age of 84, had left the eastern port city of Sokcho at 8:30am on board 10 buses, with half a dozen police vehicles as escorts.
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 heavily militarised border, they arrived at the reunion venue where a brief lunch was followed by the first sight in six decades of their long-separated relatives.
Before boarding the buses in Sokcho, some spoke of their hopes and anxieties ahead of the meetings they had dreamed of for so long.
"I think when I see her face, I won't believe it's real," 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," Kim told AFP.
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.
- Reunion also final farewell -
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 ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are banned.
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 people, time simply ran out. Last year alone 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died without ever seeing their relatives.
For all the joy the reunion brings, it is tempered by the realisation that -- given the participants' advanced ages -- it also marks a final farewell.
"This will be our first and last reunion," Kim Dong-Bin 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 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 the North.
The emotional meetings with the 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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