Elderly South Koreans head across border for first reunion allowed in three years.

A group of 82 elderly, frail South Koreans, two of them in ambulances, have left for the North Korean border to attend the first reunion in more than three years for families divided by the Korean War.

Ten coaches, with half a dozen police vehicles as escorts, left the eastern port city of Sokcho for the heavily militarised border 50km away.

The departure was delayed as two female members of the group needed medical attention, and ended up being put into ambulances for the journey.

More than a dozen were in wheelchairs and needed help boarding the buses, which they shared with 58 family members, brought along for physical as well as emotional support.


After crossing the world's last major Cold War frontier, there was another 30km drive to a resort on Mt Kumgang - the venue for the emotional reunion with 180 North Korean relatives they have not seen for more than 60 years.

"I think when I see her face, I won't believe it's real," Kim Dong Bin, 81, said of the elder sister he left decades ago in Pyongyang. "I wonder if I will be able to recognise her ... ? It's been so long."

All carried bags stuffed with gifts, ranging from basic medicines, to framed family photos and packets of instant noodles. Some brought bags of fresh fruit which they planned to offer in a joint prayer ceremony with their reunited siblings to their late parents.

"The gifts I'm bringing to my sister should be good. Something you can't see much in North Korea so I hope she will be happy," said Kim Se Rin, 85.

"I've also included some US dollars for her and my younger brother."

The reunion at Mt Kumgang follows tortuous, high-level talks, which nearly stalled over the North's objections to overlapping joint military exercises between South Korean and the United States.

Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.

Meanwhile, the wife of an Australian Christian missionary being detained in North Korea says she knows nothing of his whereabouts or welfare.

John Short, 75, arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday and was taken from his hotel by local police days later.

His travel companion Wang Chong has told the ABC Short left pamphlet materials promoting Christianity on a tour of a Buddhist temple.

Authorities were informed later by Short's local tour company of his action, which breaches North Korean laws against spreading religious material.

Short's wife, Karen, says she has had no contact from her husband since he left Hong Kong last week.