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South Korean Group Travels North for Family Reunions

A group of 99 elderly South Koreans is holding a three-day reunion at a North Korean mountain resort with family members they have not seen in five decades. The trip came about as a result of the recent resumption of humanitarian talks between the communist North and capitalist South Korea.

Red Cross societies from both countries made arrangements for the reunions, after getting approval from the Pyongyang and Seoul governments. The South Korean visitors were chosen from among a group of 120,000 applicants. The reunions were to take place last October, but were delayed when South Korea put its military on alert in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The North agreed to restart stalled exchanges with the South early this month, after Seoul sent a presidential envoy to Pyongyang.

Three previous family reunions held since the June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il took place alternately in the two Koreas' capitals.

But this week's reunions are being held at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, located close to the border of the divided peninsula and reachable by a four-hour ferry-boat ride.

A first group of 99 South Koreans, some in wheelchairs, will spend three-days with 186 North Korean family members they have not seen since the 1950-53 Korean War. The Southerners will return home Tuesday, to be followed by another group of 474 South Koreans who will depart for the resort for similar reunions with 100 North Korean relatives.

In a poignant reminder that time is running out for the separated families, one of the 100 South Koreans slated to make the trip died just days ago. More than 10,000 of the elderly South Koreans who had registered for reunions have died in the past year.

Thirty South Korean journalists are traveling with the visitors, but foreign journalists were barred from going to the North for the event.