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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

North and South Korea agree on family reunions

First meeting of relatives from both sides of border in three years

An elderly South Korean man visits the Red Cross office in Seoul on June 22, 2018 to fill out applications for an expected inter-Korean family reunion programme. Jung Yeon-je / AFP
An elderly South Korean man visits the Red Cross office in Seoul on June 22, 2018 to fill out applications for an expected inter-Korean family reunion programme. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

Delegations from North and South Korea agreed on Friday to arrange the first reunions in three years of some of the families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The reunions - scheduled for August 20 to 26 - are an emotive issue, especially for the elderly relatives taking part in tearful meetings after decades of separation - and have taken place from time to time during periods of good ties between the two Koreas.

The Red Cross organisations from the two countries will arrange the reunions which will involve about 200 selected people from the two sides, they said after a meeting of delegations.

The reunions are among steps promised by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as part of a dramatic improvement in relations between them this year, after fears of war over North Korean nuclear and missile programmes last year.

"The whole world is marvelling at the amazing developments between the North and South," said Pak Yong Il, the leader of the North Korean delegation at the talks that took place at a hotel in North Korea's tourist destination of Mount Kumgang.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula eased significantly after a summit last week between the North's Kim and US President Donald Trump, in which they agreed that they would work towards the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

The reunions will be held at Mount Kumgang, the two sides said, with 100 people from each side to be chosen to meet long-lost relatives from the other side.

South Korean officials have often called for the visits to resume as a "humanitarian and human rights issue", especially since many individuals are now in their 80s and 90s.

The first reunions were held in 1985. About 20 have been held since then with the last in 2015.

Since 2000, about 23,676 separated Koreans, from both North and South, have met or interacted through videolink as part of the programme, the Hyundai Research Institute think tank said.

But time is running out.

By March, 56 per cent of the 131,531 South Koreans who applied to take part in reunions had died, it said.

It was not clear if North Korea had dropped a condition it had previously set for resuming the reunions - that South Korea return 12 North Korean women who worked at a North Korea-run restaurant in China and defected to the South in 2016.

Several of the women said in May they were coerced into leaving, while South Korean officials said they were trying to verify their accounts.

As recently as May the North Korean Red Cross organisation urged South Korea to return the women "without delay".

The 1950-53 Korean War was concluded only with a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the combatants technically still at war, with the so-called demilitarized zone between them one of the Cold War's most heavily fortified borders.

Mr Pak, the deputy head of the North's agency to promote reunification, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, called for the past to be set aside.

"We should also part with the past and go down the road our leaders have forged for us," he said.

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