Seoul: Hundreds of mostly elderly Koreans some in wheelchairs or leaning on walking sticks, most overcome by tears, laughter and shock, began three days of reunions on Tuesday with loved ones many have had no contact with since war divided the North and South more than 60 years ago.
About 390 South Koreans travelled to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort. Dressed in business suits, formal dresses and traditional hanbok, they brought long johns, medicine, parkas, calligraphy works and cash to give as presents to about 140 family members in the North.
The reunions, as always, are a mixture of high emotion and media frenzy. Journalists crowded around South Korean Lee Soon-kyu, 85, as she met with her North Korean husband, Oh In Se, 83. As camera flashes bathed them in glaring white light, she cocked her head and looked with amazement at Oh, who wore a dapper suit and hat and craned backward to take in Lee.
The images are broadcast throughout South Korea, where the reunions are big news. North Korea's government, which analysts believe worries that scenes of affluent South Koreans might influence its grip on power, published a report about the reunions through its state media that said the North Korean participants explained to their South Korean relatives how their lives have been "happy" and "worthwhile" under the North's socialist system.
The deep emotions stem partly from the elderly reuniting after decades spent apart, partly from the knowledge that this will be their only chance. None of the past participants has had a second reunion.
At a table covered with a white cloth, bottled water and soft drinks and a vase of flowers, South Korean Kim Bock-rack wept as he clasped the hands of his sister as a cameraman silently filmed.
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 permission. Rim Ri Kyu, the widow of famous North Korean mathematician Jo Ju Kyong, looked calm as she met with her South Korean brother and other relatives from the South.
She introduced her son to the visitors, and the relatives burst into laughter after Jo Ju-chan, the South Korean brother of Rim's late husband, joked that her son resembled him. South Korean Lee Ok-yeon, 88, will reunite with her husband for the first time in 65 years. She lives in the same house her husband, also now 88, built and that the couple shared as newlyweds.
Her grandson Chae Jeong-jae told South Korean reporters that Lee had "asked whether it was a dream or a reality" when she was told she would attend the reunions.
In a second round of reunions, from Saturday until Monday, about 250 South Koreans are to visit the mountain resort to reunite with about 190 North Korean relatives, the South's Unification Ministry said.
The Korean War separated millions of Koreans from family members for a multitude of reasons. What they have in common is shock that their homeland remains so bitterly split after so much time.