By Yoo Seungki
SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- A secluded resort hotel, located inside the mountains in South Korea's east coastal city of Sokcho, was unusually crowded with gray-haired old men and women, among whom some leaned upon sticks and some were wheelchair-bound.
Family reunion participants, four fifth of whom in their 80s and 90s, jammed the hotel lobby Wednesday afternoon to confirm their identification. They were accompanied by family members, surrounded by photographers and TV cameras shooting the rare, unusual scene.
Seoul and Pyongyang have agreed to hold reunion of separated families from Feb. 20 to 25. The agreement was reaffirmed during the senior-level talks between the two Koreas held last Friday. The humanitarian event will come in more than three years. The latest round of family reunion was held in November 2010.
Those gathered in Sokcho will leave Thursday morning for the Mount Kumgang resort in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s east coast to meet their long-lost relatives, who have lived in the DPRK for six decades.
In the first stage of the reunion that will run from Thursday to Saturday, 82 South Koreans accompanied by 58 family members will meet 180 relatives from the DPRK. In the second stage that will last for three days from Sunday, 88 people from the DPRK will meet 361 South Korean relatives.
Millions of Koreans have been separated from their families since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in armistice, not peace treaty. Around 22,000 Koreans living across the inter-Korean border met at the 18 rounds of family reunion from 1985 to 2010, but many Koreans died without meeting their relatives.
In South Korea alone, more than 129,000 people have applied for family reunions since 1988, but almost 58,000 elderly South Koreans have died, with 3,841 people dead in 2013.
Originally, 83 South Koreans were supposed to take part in this round of family reunion, but one participant gave up his trip to the Mount Kumgang resort just a day ahead of the event due to health problem.
In September last year, when the two Koreas exchanged initial lists, the number of participants from South Korea who were picked by lottery was 96, but it fell to 82 due to their deaths and health problems. The figure for the DPRK participants declined from 100 to 88.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said during a cabinet meeting Tuesday that around 3,800 elderly South Koreans died last year alone without a chance to meet their relatives in the North, instructing cabinet members to come up with fundamental measures to frequently hold the reunion event.
The Park administration, since its launch in early 2013, has focused on the reunion event, or an emotional and humanitarian issue, repeating that it will become the first step toward improved inter-Korean ties, eventually toward peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Relations between the two Koreas were strained further after the DPRK's third nuclear test in February 2013, just two months after its long-range rocket launch. Pyongyang threatened a nuclear strike against South Korea as well as the U.S. territory, escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The previous Lee Myung-bak administration maintained the so- called"strategic patience"policy toward the DPRK from 2007 to 2012 after Pyongyang's artillery attack against a South Korean island in the western waters.
The inter-Korean relations showed thawing signs from the beginning of this year as top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un voiced his willingness to improve ties with South Korea in his New Year speech. In response to South Korea's call for proving sincerity with action, Pyongyang agreed to hold the family reunion, which Seoul has repeatedly called as the first step toward a new peace era on the Korean Peninsula.
The family reunion will come amid the South Korea-U.S. military exercises scheduled for around two months from Feb. 24, dates that overlap for two days with the humanitarian event. President Park said that it will have a great meaning as the reunion will be held regardless of the joint military drills, which Pyongyang denounced as the rehearsal for a northward invasion.