Rival Koreas strike deal on family reunions
North Korean Kim Jin-Won (centre) cries with his South Korean relatives as they bid farewell following their three-day separated family reunion meeting at Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast, near the border, on November 1, 2010. South and North Korea agreed Friday to go ahead with reunions next month for families separated for decades by the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul said.
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 in a press briefing, 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, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.
At the emotional, often tearful reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans head home again.
The reunion programme began in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.
The last such meeting took place in late 2010, before the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
Inter-Korean relations have showed signs of improving recently after months of heightened military tensions that followed the North's nuclear test in February.
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.
"If they build trust through the successful holding of family reunions, they will be able to restore suspended cross-border tours to the Kumgang resort later and turn their frozen ties into a mode of dialogue and conciliation."
The two sides have already agreed to work on reopening their Kaesong joint industrial zone, shut down in April.
Seoul has sought to play down expectations of a sudden turnaround in relations with the North, saying the recent breakthroughs are just the start of what will be a long, incremental progress.
President Park has also made it clear that any substantial dialogue on strategic issues can only take place if North Korea offers a tangible commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.
Pyongyang has said it will never allow its nuclear deterrent to be used as a bargaining chip.
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