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South Koreans gather at coastal resort ahead of family reunions

A group of 82 elderly, specially-selected South Koreans gathered at a coastal resort on Wednesday prior to crossing into North Korea for the first reunion in more than three years for the peninsula's divided families.

SOKCHO, South Korea: A group of 82 elderly, specially-selected South Koreans gathered at a coastal resort on Wednesday prior to crossing into North Korea for the first reunion in more than three years for the peninsula's divided families.

With an average age of 84, they were accompanied by 58 family members for physical and emotional support as they prepared to meet relatives last seen decades before.

One infirm 91-year-old made the 140 kilometre journey from his home north of Seoul by ambulance, while 14 others were in wheelchairs.

All were to spend the night in the Hanwha resort in the eastern port city of Sokcho before an early start to the heavily-fortified border nearby and then on to another resort located on North Korea's Mount Kumgang.

Their challenging, highly emotional journey is the result of a hard-won agreement between both North and South Korea to resume reunions of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The reunion programme had been suspended since 2010 when the North shelled a South Korean border island.

Having had their hopes shattered when Pyongyang cancelled a reunion planned for last September, many had been wary when the two sides agreed to hold an event from February 20-25 at Mount Kumgang.

The accord almost fell apart when the North took exception to overlapping joint military drills by South Korea and the United States, and was only saved by some rare high-level talks last week.

The frailty of the participants was underlined on Wednesday when one man, 83-year-old Lee Kun-Su, was forced to pull out at the last minute because of health issues.

Lee Ok-Ran, 84, said she had barely been able to sleep at the prospect of seeing the two sisters she left behind in the North's western province of Hwanghae.

South Korean TV showed her at home carefully packing bundles of gifts, ranging from underwear and analgesic patches to Choco Pies - a South Korean chocolate and marshmallow biscuit snack.

"I've heard Choco Pies are popular and expensive in the North", Lee said.

"Ok-Bin, Ok-Hi, I'm waiting to hug you hard and dance together," she said looking into the camera and calling her sisters' names.

Kim Se-Rin, 85, worried whether he would be able to recognise his sister when he finally meets her.

"She's 81 now, I wonder what she looks like," he said, as he packed his belongings in the family car in Seoul for the drive to Sokcho.

"I have waited 64 years for this," said Kim, who left his home in North Korea after the outbreak of war in 1950 in order to join the South Korean army.

"This is it. My last chance," he told AFP.

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 Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.

Around 71,000 South Koreans are wait-listed for a chance to take part in one of the reunion events, which select only a few hundred participants at a time.

The reunion programme began in earnest in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit.

Sporadic events since then have led around 17,000 relatives to be briefly reunited.

On arrival in Sokcho, the chosen South Koreans were given an orientation course by South Korean officials, who briefed them on what to expect in the North.

Their reunion with 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.

For the vast majority it will be the last contact they ever have with each other.

Last year alone, around 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died without ever realising their dreams of seeing their relatives.

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