By The Korea Herald
Asia News Network
MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea
Eighty-nine South Koreans mostly in their 70s and older met about 180 long-separated relatives living in North Korea at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North's east coast.
The meeting, which started at around 3 p.m., is the first session of reunions planned during their three-day stay in the North. The families are to meet on six occasions for a combined 11 hours during the reunion event that will end Wednesday.
The South Koreans left for the venue in buses early in the morning from Sokcho, a town in northeastern South Korea, where they spent the night. Some were so frail that they were in wheelchairs or supported by accompanying family members when they boarded the buses.
Many of them waited in the hotel lobby way ahead of schedule for the departure.
"I slept before 9 p.m. last night and woke up at around 3 in the morning," said Shin Jong-ho, 70, one of the elderly persons. "I feel okay now with no health problems. I hope that things continue like this when I arrive there."
The first session is to be followed by their meeting again at a dinner hosted by the North Korean side.
On their second day, they are scheduled to meet in the morning and have lunch together in their rooms, the first time for separated families to have such a private meeting since the reunion event started.
The South Korean participants are mostly in their 70s and 80s, with a 101-year-old man the oldest among them.
As many participants are elderly, reunions between parents and sons and daughters are rare. Most cases are meetings among cousins, nieces or nephews.
The government has dispatched around 30 medical staff to the venue to brace for any emergency cases among the participants.
In subsequent reunions planned to take place from Friday to Sunday, 83 North Koreans will also meet family members found to be alive in the South.
The family reunions are a follow-up on an agreement the leaders of South and North Korea reached in April to address humanitarian issues arising from nearly seven decades of division caused by the Korean War.
The event came amid a thaw in relations between the two Koreas after a yearslong hiatus and tensions heightened by the North's continued pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.
Inter-Korean relations have been improving in a dramatic way since earlier this year when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered an olive branch to send his athletes and a delegation to the Winter Olympics that South Korea hosted in March.
The two Koreas have resumed cross-border talks ever since amid a growing sense of peace which culminated in historic summits. Their leaders are expected to meet again in Pyongyang next month.
During the April summit in particular, they agreed to work toward the "complete" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, halt hostile acts and expand long-frozen exchanges and cooperation.
The denuclearization process, however, has been stalemated recently as the United States and North Korea appear to be at odds over how and at what speed the North should relinquish its nuclear weapons program.
Those separated families have been deemed as major victims of the longstanding division and heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
This week's family reunions come nearly three years after such an event was last held in October 2015.
The two Koreas have organized 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunions since the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. Some 57,000 South Koreans are waiting to be reunited with their families who might be living in the North.
The two Koreas technically remain at war as the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.