SEOUL - A South Korean advance team that includes Red Cross officials is in North Korea to prepare for next week’s reunion for families that have been separated by the Korean War.
This rare reunion that just weeks ago looked unlikely to happen will offer the 200 selected participants from both North and South the first opportunity to see their families in over a half-century, and could open the door to further inter-Korean cooperation.
Lee Taek-koo is one of the lucky few selected by the Red Cross to participate. He is one of the thousands of Koreans who have family members living on the other side of the border.
Only a small percentage have been selected to participate in the reunion program.
“It makes my heart flutter. I am happy as my youngest sibling will be there. It’s been a long time,” Lee said.
These inter-Korean family reunions have been held on and off for the past decade, sometimes being canceled because of political tensions.
The last one was held in 2014, but the year prior, North Korea canceled the event after it claimed the South was trying to overthrow the Pyongyang government.
This year’s reunion was agreed to in August during peace talks between the two Koreas that were held to ease tensions after a landmine border incident nearly escalated into a large-scale military conflict.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has advocated for both sides to put aside political differences on this issue and cooperate on family reunions as a humanitarian gesture and trust-building exercise.
But Pyongyang had until now demanded that South Korea meet certain conditions before it would cooperate, including ending joint military exercises with the U.S. and stopping anti-Pyongyang activists in the South from sending leaflets via balloons across the border.
North Korea had in the past established a pattern of creating a crisis with some provocative act, then extracting concessions to resolve the crisis.
President Park, who is in Washington this week to meet with President Barack Obama, said her administration has refused to reward Pyongyang for its bad behavior.
Instead, during the August landmine incident, Seoul refused to give Pyongyang the concession it wanted -- that South Korea turn off loudspeakers along the border broadcasting criticism of Kim Jong Un -- until the North made significant concessions.
“We’ve seen how that firmness actually paved the way to dialogue paradoxically, and how that dialogue led to meetings that in turn led to an apology being issued on the part of North Korea as well as agreements on other steps as well,” Park said.
She also credits diplomatic efforts by Pyongyang allies Beijing and Moscow for pressuring North Korea to cooperate more and, so far, to hold off on threatened missile and nuclear tests.
There was concern that this reunion would be canceled after Pyongyang indicated it would launch a long-range rocket during its recent ruling party anniversary celebration.
The U.S. and its allies consider such a test related to its nuclear ballistic missile program that is banned by the United Nations.
But there was no test and the two sides are working together on the family reunion plans.
The reunions are scheduled for October 20-26 and will be held at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea.
Seoul has indicated that such cooperation could lead to economic engagement as well.
For the mostly elderly Koreans who participate in the reunions, this may be their last chance to see their families before they die.
Lee, who is 89 years old, lives alone in a small apartment in the city of Incheon, near Seoul. His wife has died and his two sons, one of whom will accompany him to the reunion, are grown.
He has had no contact with his family since he fled the fighting in the North over 60 years ago. Lee was told that he will meet with his youngest brother.
He said he does not know if any of his other seven brothers and sisters are still alive or when his parents died.
Lee said he has written family members letters over the years that he could never send.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.