SEOUL — More than 100 South Koreans have crossed into North Korea to meet with relatives they have not seen since the 1950s Korean War. Pyongyang has not allowed the emotional reunions since 2010 and analysts have said the isolated nation uses them for political purposes.
One hundred forty South Koreans, most in their 70s and 80s, arrived Thursday at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort.
They are part of several hundred chosen by lottery to spend two days meeting with North Korean relatives they have not seen in six decades.
South Korea's Yonhap Television showed the elderly Koreans arriving at a banquet hall, then hugging and sobbing, overcome with emotion.
Lee Myung-han was part of the group crossing the border Thursday. He said he is going to meet his brother, though he does not know if he will be there because he heard he is sick. When a journalist asked if he slept well last night, he said his leg and feet hurt in some parts, so he could not sleep at all.
A number of Koreans at the reunion were in wheel chairs and a few in stretchers. The scene underscored a reality that many relatives in other divided families will not see each other before they die.
More than half of the South Koreans registered for the Red Cross-run reunions through lottery have died waiting; 3,800 died in 2013 alone.
Lilian Lee with the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said for the reuniting families, this is their only chance.
“If this chance isn't taken then they will never see them again. On the other hand, these family reunions are very often used as political tools by both the North and South Korean governments and that perspective is not very fruitful to the North Korean human rights situation in general,” said Lee.
The two Koreas have held 18 rounds of reunions since 1985, reuniting over 20,000 relatives in person and by video link. However, North Korea has refused to make them regular and has postponed the events at least four times, most recently in September.
Many feared Pyongyang would postpone the reunions again after demanding an end to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills that start Monday, but Seoul said it convinced Pyongyang to separate the two issues and proceed with the meetings.
Daniel Pinkson, Deputy Northeast Asia Director with the International Crisis Group, said an unprecedented United Nations report this week condemning North Korea's human rights situation may have helped.
“I think by drawing more attention to it through some more vocal, vigorous response or through some kinetic response or through some retribution such as canceling the family reunions would draw more attention to it. And, I think the report is pretty solid. So, it would simply inflame the problem for them. So, in a strategic sense, the leadership probably decided just to ignore it and wait for this to go away,” said Pinkson.
A second round of reunions Sunday will see a group of 360 South Koreans meet relatives across the border.
The three-year Korean War that separated the peninsula into a communist north and capitalist south divided millions of families.
The two never signed a peace treaty and technically remain at war, with severe restrictions on cross-border trips and communications.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.