The six-day reunions, the first such since 2010, was agreed on by the two Koreas after lengthy negotiations in recent weeks with the Communist North, led by its unpredictable Kim Jon Un, issuing last minute threats to back out of the deal if the South went ahead with its planned annual military drills with the United States beginning at the end of this month and last through April. The South refused to scrap the drills, saying they are routine and defensive in nature.
South Korea's Yonhap News said a total of 82 senior South Koreans, accompanied by 58 family members, traveled by bus across the heavily fortified border between the two countries. They were scheduled to arrive at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North's east coast, later Thursday to begin their reunions with 180 North Korean relatives scheduled to last until Saturday.
Another set of reunions is to follow the current one.
The reunions will overlap the South Korea-U.S. military exercises, which the North has maintained is a prelude for invasion against it. But the family gatherings are set to go on assuming there is no last minute hitch. A similar reunion last year was canceled by the North without notice.
Among those traveling to the North was Hwang Duk-yong, who hopes to meet his two sisters, the Christian Science Monitor reported. Hwang was only 17 when the start of the Korean War forced him to cross into the South and leave his sisters behind, whom he hasn't seen since.
"The Chinese were attacking. I walked to the South and joined the South Korean army," Hwang, now 82, told the Monitor.
For those like him, the reunions are a precious opportunity to reconnect with their dear ones. Their urgency is obvious as most members of the separated families are now quite elderly, raising concerns they may not have long to live to realize their dream of meeting their long-lost ones.
Once the meeting is over, many will return home, knowing they may never see them again as in the case of Hwang and his sisters.
Millions of Koreans remain separated as the Korean War ended in a cease-fire in 1953 and there has not been a formal peace treaty since. People in the two Koreas cannot exchange telephone calls or letters.
"It's been such a long time. I don't know what I'll say," Hwang, a former heavy equipment operator on a U.S. military base, told the Monitor, expressing joy over the opportunity to meet his sisters.
The newspaper said those taking the trip Thursday were selected through a lottery from among thousands of applicants.
Han Chang-ho, also 82 and another traveler to the North, seemed less confident. "I am getting old. I don't even know for sure if my sister can meet me. I don't feel excited at all. Everybody's dying."
South Korea says the reunions are a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations, which were deeply strained after Kim Jong Un's North Korean regime, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, went ahead with long-range missile firings and conducted its third nuclear test a year ago. There have also been numerous other provocations from Pyongyang as well as purges, raising concerns about instability in that country.
Yonhap said South Korea has been calling for more frequent family reunions but the North has not agreed.
China's Xinhua News Agency said those traveling overland Thursday from South Korea's coastal city of Sokcho received medical checkups as most of them are past the age of 80. China remains the closest ally of the isolated North Korea.
The scheduled reunions come when a United Nations panel, after a lengthy investigation into the human rights situation in North Korea, released its report earlier this week, detailing unspeakable atrocities as narrated by North Korean defectors. It said the allegations revealed a state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, told the Monitor the North, through the family reunions, may be trying to counter the U.N. report's charge that the human rights abuses "constitute crimes against humanity."