June 22, 2018 / 2:22 AM / 2 months ago

North and South Korea agree to round of reunions of divided families

SEOUL (Reuters) - 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.

South Korea's delegation leader Park Kyung-seo, head of the Korean Red Cross, and North Korea's delegation leader Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, arrive for their meeting at a hotel on Mount Kumgang, North Korea, June 22, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

The reunions - scheduled for Aug. 20 to Aug. 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 organizations from the two countries will arrange the reunions which will involve about 200 selected people from the two sides, they said in a joint statement 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 programs last year.

“The whole world is marveling 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 President Donald Trump, in which they agreed that they would work toward the denuclearization 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.

South Korea's delegation leader Park Kyung-seo, head of the Korean Red Cross, is greeted by North Korea's delegation leader Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, at a hotel on Mount Kumgang, North Korea, June 22, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

‘PART WITH THE PAST’

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

But time is running out.

By March, 56 percent 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.

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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 organization 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.

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.

Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Haejin Choi; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel

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