N. Korea agrees to hold family reunions with S. Korea

AFP , Sunday 18 Aug 2013

At the reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans, many in tears, head home again

North Korea said Sunday it has agreed to South Korea's proposal to resume reunions for families separated since the 1950-53 war, in another apparent sign of easing tensions.

The North has agreed to hold the event during the traditional Chuseok holiday that falls on September 19 as suggested by the South, Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement on official media.

It also proposed a separate round of indirect family reunions via video conference around October 4 -- the anniversary of the 2007 inter-Korean summit, said the statement on the North's official news agency.

The move came days after the South's President Park Geun-Hye last Thursday urged Pyongyang to "open its heart" and agree to hold the first family reunions since 2010.

Officials of the Red Cross from both sides will meet on August 23 as proposed by Seoul to discuss details, the North said, suggesting the Mount Kumgang resort in the North as the venue for the talks.

"Now is the time for the north and the south to make joint efforts for the improvement of the north-south ties and peace and common prosperity on the Korean peninsula," said the statement.

Seoul described Pyongyang's offer on Sunday "positive," but insisted that the officials' meeting to discuss the family reunion be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom, instead of Mount Kumgang.

Kim Hyung-Suk, spokesman for the South's unification ministry that handles cross-border affairs, said Seoul would make a decision on the proposed talks on the Mount Kumgang later after internal reviews.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the war, which sealed the peninsula's division. Most have died without having had a chance to meet family members last seen six decades ago.

About 72,000 South Koreans -- nearly half of them aged over 80 -- are still alive and waiting for a rare chance to join the highly competitive family reunion events, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.

At the reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans -- many in tears -- head home again.

For those too infirm to travel, reunions via video conferencing have been arranged in recent years.

Cross-border relations have showed signs of improving recently after months of high tensions. Last week the two sides agreed to work on reopening the Kaesong joint industrial zone shut down in April.

Operations at the factory complex in the North were suspended after Pyongyang withdrew all its workers amid tensions heightened by its nuclear test in February.

The North also proposed Sunday a separate meeting on August 22 to discuss reopening the Kumgang mountain resort. It promised to discuss Seoul's key concerns including the safety of its tourists.

Kumgang was the first major inter-Korean cooperation project, and thousands of South Koreans visited the Seoul-funded resort in the North between 1998 and 2008.

The South suspended the tours -- an important source of hard currency for the impoverished North -- after a North Korean soldier in 2008 shot dead a female tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.

In response the North scrapped a deal with the resort's developer -- Seoul's Hyundai Asan company -- and seized its properties there.

The North said Sunday it was also willing to discuss the issue of property during the proposed talks on Thursday.

Park Hyeong-Jung, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, cautioned that the recent series of conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang would not thaw frozen ties overnight.

"But this will at least open a door for low-level cooperation for a while, with both sides cautiously showing goodwill towards each other," he said.

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