|Red Cross officials prepare for the reunion of separated families to be held in the Mount Geumgangsan resort in North Korea on Thursday. (Yonhap)|
Eighty-two participants and 58 people accompanying them will meet with about 180 separated family members for a first round of the event, from Thursday to Saturday. From Sunday to Tuesday, an additional 360 South Koreans will gather with 88 North Korean relatives for a second round.
The elderly participants received medical checkups and training on their trip to the North at a resort in the port city of Sokcho. They were to leave for the North’s scenic mountain resort by bus the next morning.
“Though I’m not well, I came all the way from Seoul to meet with my nephews who I thought I would never get to see again,” said Park Choon-jae, 72.
Kim Myung-bok, 66, brought the will of his father, who passed away 10 years ago, in which he told the surviving son to find his older sister in the North.
“My father was really sorry about leaving her behind,” he said. “In the past when my parents had an argument, my mother blamed my father for leaving for the South first, saying she had to leave her (the sister) behind because she couldn’t bring all of the three children alone.”
The Unification Ministry, Korean Red Cross and Hyundai Asan Corp. have been preparing for the event for the past several weeks, clearing snow and repairing facilities that have been unused for more than three years.
“Though it snowed heavily recently, we’re removing snow and making the utmost efforts to ensure that the reunions will take place without any problem,” ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin told a news briefing.
The event comes less than a week after the divided states held their first high-level dialogue since 2007. The North agreed to hold the reunions as scheduled, without taking issue with South Korea-U.S. military drills scheduled to begin on Feb. 24, which it calls a rehearsal for war.
The separated families are becoming an ever more pressing issue because of their old age and waning health. Some have given up their chance to participate in the upcoming reunion mainly due to health problems.
As of the end of 2013, only 71,480 were still alive of the 129,264 South Korean members of separated families registered since 1988, according to ministry data. Of the survivors, more than 11 percent are in their 90s, 42 percent in their 80s and 29 percent in their 70s.
President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday called for “fundamental measures” to hold the reunions on a regular basis.
Since 1985, 18 face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings have taken place, involving more than 22,000 people from 4,380 families.
The project was suspended in the wake of the North’s sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery strike on a border island in the West Sea in 2010. Inter-Korean ties were further strained by a series of nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang.
By Shin Hyon-hee, Joint Press Corps (firstname.lastname@example.org)