Emotional reunions as families separated for decades meet in North Korea

South Korean family reunification

In this October 22, 2015, file photo, North Korean Son Kwon Geun, (centre), weeps with his South Korean relatives as he bids farewell after the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea.

South Korea sees the separated families as the largest humanitarian issue created by the war, which killed and injured millions and cemented the division of the Korean Peninsula into the North and South.

The separated families are victims of a decades-long standoff between the neighbours, which has escalated over the past several years as Pyongyang rapidly advanced its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

The 89 elderly South Koreans, dressed in their best suits in the scorching sun, hobbled one by one to 14 coaches in Sokcho - wheelchairs alongside the vehicles - some excited while others were still in disbelief, before the convoy set off with a police escort.

South Korean President Moon, himself a member of a separated family from the North's eastern port city of Hungnam, said on Monday that the reunions should be sharply scaled up and held on a regular basis and include exchanges of visits and letters.

One woman, Lee Keum-seom, told CNN that she was seeing her son for the first time since he was 4 years old.

At the time Ri Sang-chol was just four. He is now 71.

"I think there's going to be a lot of difference, in the language, in the way of thinking, and the lifestyles we lived", Lee said. Some were not even sure if their relatives were alive.

With time taking its toll, such parent-child reunions have become rare.

For many participants these reunions represent the first news they have had of their relatives in almost seven decades. The oldest visitor from South Korea was 101-year-old Baik Sung-gyu. Socks, underwear, basic winter jackets, medicine, toothpastes and food are the most common items, with gifts deemed too extravagant unlikely to pass muster with Pyongyang authorities. "It's an old, shabby photo so I brought a copied version", she said with tears in her eyes.

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"I am very glad that I have been selected this time, I'm walking on air now".

In South Korea, more than half of the 132,600 people who applied for reunions - including some of those who got to see their relatives - have died.

But Jang Hae-won, 89, who fled their hometown in Hwanghae province along with his older brother, said he would meet his nephew and niece to offer them a glimpse of their father's life.

"Uncles, take my deep bow", said Seo Soon-gyo (55), as her 87-year-old father, Seo Jin-ho, met with two younger brothers, Chan Ho and Won Ho.

Holding the event for reunions of separated families comes as part of the agreement reached by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their landmark April summit.

The series of brief meetings reflect a thaw in diplomatic tensions between the governments of the two Koreas.

Families at previous reunions have often found it a bitter-sweet experience.

They are due to spend three days in North Korea but only be with their relatives for a few hours each day - in total, only 11 hours.

They will have only three hours in private before they are separated once again on Wednesday, in all likelihood for the final time.

Moon attended a 2004 reunion to meet his aunt.

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