About 66,000 South Koreans — many of them in their 80s or 90s — are on the waiting list for an eventual reunion, but only a very limited number can be chosen each time.
The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and was initially an annual event.
But strained cross-border relations have allowed only one reunion in the past five years, with several being cancelled at the last moment by North Korea.
– Tough selection process –
For those on the waiting list, the reunion selection process is an emotional roller-coaster — raising hopes of a meeting they have longed for but which, statistically, they are very unlikely to experience.
For the last event in February 2014, a computer was used to randomly select 500 candidates, after taking age and family background into account.
That number was reduced to 200 after interviews and medical exams, and the final list of 100 was drawn up after checking if relatives were still alive on the other side.
And even after all that, the reunion almost never happened, with 11th-hour, high-level negotiations required to prevent the North cancelling over South Korea’s refusal to postpone annual military drills.
Lee Duk-Haeng said the South planned to hand over the names of 50 South Koreans believed to have been held as prisoners of war in the North.
If any are found to be alive, their relatives in the South will be given a priority slot in Seoul’s final list of 100 participants, he said.
For the lucky ones who do take part, the reunions are hugely emotional — almost traumatic — affairs, with many of the elderly participants breaking down and sobbing as they cling to each other.
They typically last several days and the joy of the reunion is tempered by the pain of the inevitable — and this time permanent — separation at the end.
Because the Korean War concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are banned.