Korean families head to bittersweet reunions

Meeting between war-divided families, who haven't seen each other for over 60 years, was agreed after tortuous talks.

Last updated: 20 Feb 2014 19:16
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A group of 82 elderly, frail South Koreans, two of them in ambulances, have started a journey to the North Korean border to attend the first family reunion in more than three years for familes 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 local time on Thursday (23:30 GMT Wednesday) for the heavily-militarised border 50kms away.

"I think when I see her face, I won't believe it's real. I wonder if I will be able to recognise her immediately? It's been so long.

Kim Dong-Bin.

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

"Twenty-six of the group are over 90 years old, so we have to be very careful. It's more challenging than any other time," Yoo Jung-Kaeun, president of the South Korean Red Cross, told Al Jazeera.

"This is why there are so many more accompanying family members," she added.

She was referring to 58 family members who have joined the journey, emotionally and physically supporting the elderly travellers, of whom more than a dozen are in wheelchairs.

After crossing the world's last major Cold War frontier, there will be another 30km drive to a resort on Mount Kumgang - the venue for the 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," Kim Dong-Bin, 81, said of the elder sister he left decades ago in the North's capital, Pyongyang.

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

Pyongyang concessions

All of the South Koreans carried bags filled with gifts, ranging from basic medicines, to framed family photos and packets of instant noodles. Some brought bags of fresh fruit that 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 is 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 fact that its all going ahead despite that represents some sort of concession by Pyongyang, but also represents something deeply-felt for the dozens of elderly people, preparing to meet their loved ones,"  Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from Sokcho, said. 

The majority of Koreans separated by the war died without meeting again.


Al Jazeera and agencies
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