Pyongyang, Seoul to resume reunions of Korean families
After 3-year halt, efforts to reunite those divided by war will start in September
North and South Korea agreed yesterday to go ahead with the first reunions in three years for families separated for decades by the 1950-53 Korean war, Seoul said, the latest sign of warming ties between the rivals.
The reunion programme was suspended after the North's shelling of a South Korean border island in November 2010, and its resumption marks a symbolic but important step.
The reunions will be held on September 25-30 at the North's Mount Kumgang resort, South Korea's Unification Ministry said, conceding to Pyongyang over the contentious choice of venue.
"With today's agreement, we set the stage for regular family reunions," ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk said, adding the two sides will push for another round of family reunions in November.
The ministry said 100 families from each side would be selected to take part in the temporary reunion programme.
For those too infirm to travel, reunions via video conferencing will be arranged for 40 families from each side in October, it added.
Seoul was initially keen to avoid hosting the reunions at Mount Kumgang fearing the North would link the issue to that of restarting tours to the mountainous resort.
The South suspended the tours in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.
The push to restart the reunions was initiated last week by South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who urged Pyongyang to "open its heart" and agree to kickstart the programme in time for next month's Chuseok holiday - when Korean families traditionally gather together.
Millions of Koreans were left separated by the Korean War, which sealed the peninsula's division. Most have died without having had a chance to reunite with family members last seen six decades ago.
About 72,000 South Koreans - nearly half of them aged over 80 - are still alive and wait-listed for a chance to join the highly sought-after family reunion events
The reunion programme began in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen about 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.
The last such meeting took place in late 2010, before the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said: "The two sides still have a long way to go but today's agreement reflects their will to mend fences and restore relations in general."