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The reunions were included in the Panmunjom Declaration signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, in which the countries agreed to "endeavor to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation" and "proceed with reunion programs for the separated families" on the occasion of the August 15 Liberation Day, when a then-unified Korea gained independence from Japan's colonial rule in 1945.

About 330 South Koreans from 89 families, many in wheelchairs, embraced 185 separated relatives from the North with tears, joy and disbelief.

The pain felt by the families split by the Korean War is one of the most visible legacies of the conflict which, 68 years after it began, still hasn't technically ended.

"I finally get to meet you after living for so long", replied the older woman.

The son is now 71 and Lee has been told that he will bring his daughter-in-law to the meeting.

For minutes after they reunited, the trio cried loudly and rubbed their cheeks with their hands.

"I never imagined this day would come", she told AFP.

In the decades since the Korean War, the Red Cross has reunited many families but thousands of others have missed out.

However, time is running out for many ageing family members.

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Moon is himself a member of a divided family: His parents fled on a ship from the North Korean port of Hungnam in December 1950, and he accompanied his mother to meet her younger sister during an earlier family reunion in 2004.

For years, Seoul has been calling for regular meetings between separated families including using video conferences, but the reunion programmes often fell victim to fragile relations with Pyongyang.

Over the next three days, the participants will spend only about 11 hours - mostly under the watchful eyes of North Korean agents - with their relatives in the North. The ministry estimates there are now about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended relatives in North Korea. More than 75,000 of the 132,000 South Koreans who have applied to participate in reunions have died, according to the Seoul ministry.

"When I escaped the war..." she said, unable to continue, apparently overwhelmed by regret over the fact that she had to leave her two daughters behind.

Some of those selected for this year's reunions dropped out after learning that their parents or siblings had died and they could only meet more distant relatives whom they had never seen before.

South Korea sees the separated families as the largest humanitarian issue created by the war, which killed and injured millions and cemented the division of the Korean Peninsula into the North and South. Of the 57,000 survivors, 41.2 percent are in their 80s and 21.4 percent in their 90s, government data show.

At the meeting, as soon as 99-year-old South Korean Han Shin-ja approached her table, her two daughters - aged 69 and 72 - bowed their heads deeply towards her and burst into tears.

"Most participants are elderly and many of them are suffering from hypertension, diabetes and have underlying medical conditions". "Ahead of the reunions, we are thoroughly checking their health". Socks, underwear, basic winter jackets, medicine, toothpastes and food are the most common items, with gifts deemed too extravagant unlikely to pass muster with Pyongyang authorities.

Moon Hyun-sook, 91, said she put together clothes, cosmetics and medicine for her two sisters, younger than she is by 12 and 26 years. She had travelled from the South to see them.


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