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(4th LD) Koreas agree to hold family reunions in late Feb.

All Headlines 16:25 February 05, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by Seoul official, details in paras 8, 10-14; ADDS byline)
By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Feb. 5 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea agreed Wednesday to stage a new round of reunions later this month for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, an official said, a move that could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The reunions -- the first since October 2010 -- will be held at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on North Korea's east coast, from Feb. 20 to 25, according to the text of an agreement reached at their Red Cross talks.

The deal is the first sign of progress in improving inter-Korean relations that have worsened due to the North's military threats against the South in recent months.

North Korea's chief delegate Pak Yong-Il said that the Red Cross meeting "is a very important starting point for improving the North-South relations."

Pak made the comments at the beginning of the meeting at the border village of Panmunjom, according to a brief audio file released by the unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

The planned reunions coincide with South Korea's annual joint military exercises with Washington, which are set to run from late February through April.

North Korea has pressed South Korea to scrap the drills, condemning them as a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it. Seoul and Washington have vowed to go ahead with the exercises, calling them defensive in nature.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War.

The North had indictated that the reunions could not be held "amid gunfire," referring to the military drills.

The North mentioned the joint military exercises and its recent conciliatory overture at the border talks, though it did not attach a condition for the family reunions, said the unification ministry official, requesting anonymity.

Last month, the North offered a series of conciliatory gestures that called for the cancellation of the joint military drills. It also proposed halting all slander and all hostile military acts between the two Koreas.

South Korea had rejected the North's overture as a "deceptive" ploy.

On Wednesday, South Korea said it can discuss other issues with North Korea if the reunions go well.

The sides also agreed to hold Red Cross talks after the reunions to resolve humanitarian issues, in an apparent reference to South Korean prisoners of war and abductees being held in the communist country, as well as Seoul's food aid to the North.

South Korea has repeatedly called on the North to hold the reunions, calling them a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations.

Last year, the sides agreed to hold family reunions at Mount Kumgang, but Pyongyang abruptly called them off at the last minute.

Family reunions are a highly emotional issue on the divided peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

There are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries that remain divided by a heavily fortified border.

The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since their landmark summit in 2000, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the Korean War.


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