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2 Koreas agree to discuss reunions for families

Bid to renew visits is latest attempt to thaw relations

North Koreans on a bus said goodbye to their South Korean relatives following a three-day reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North’s southeastern coast on Nov. 1, 2010.

AFP/Getty Images file

North Koreans on a bus said goodbye to their South Korean relatives following a three-day reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North’s southeastern coast on Nov. 1, 2010.

SEOUL — North Korea on Sunday accepted a South Korean proposal to discuss the reunions of elderly relatives who had been separated from their parents, siblings, and children since the Korean War six decades ago.

No such reunion has been held in the past three years, and a revival of the highly emotional humanitarian program would be another step toward a thaw on the divided Korean Peninsula after months of tension and threats of war.

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Hopes for a possible return of inter-Korean reconciliation have grown since South Korea and North Korea agreed last week to reopen a joint industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong that was shut down four months ago.

Seizing on the momentum, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea proposed Thursday that the two governments should resume arranging reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war.

Her government proposed holding talks Friday — an offer the North accepted in a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency.

In its statement, North Korea agreed with the South that the reunions should take place in time for the autumn holiday of Chuseok on Sept. 19, traditionally a time for family gatherings.

But the two Koreas have yet to resolve differences over where to hold their meeting.

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Since the division of Korea in 1945 and the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate, millions of Koreans have been separated from family members across the border, with no direct mail service or telephone links. A series of family reunions was held from 1998 to 2010.

Family reunions have been a highly emotional issue. About 72,000 South Koreans — half of them more than age 80 — remain on a waiting list for a chance to meet relatives in the North. On Sunday, North Korea suggested that the meeting Friday take place at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea. The resort had been a popular destination for South Korean tourists and the site of previous reunions until it was closed in 2008, after North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean tourist.

North Korea insists on reopening the tourism project, which, like the industrial complex, had served as a crucial source of cash. On Sunday, it proposed a separate meeting Thursday to discuss that issue, indicating that Friday’s discussion on the family reunions might hinge on the talks to reopen the resort.

South Korea proposed that the talks about the reunions be in Panmunjom, a border village north of Seoul, and said it was reviewing the proposal for talks to reopen the mountain tours.

The industrial park and the Diamond Mountain tourism program were among a few joint projects started during an earlier period of reconciliation but suspended or jeopardized as North-South relations chilled in recent years.

“If the North and the South can agree to reopen the Diamond Mountain tours, it will bring a great joy to the Korean nation,” the North Korean statement said on Sunday.

South Korea has said it would consider restarting tours only if the North apologizes for the killing of the tourist and guarantees that such shootings will never happen again.

Many conservative South Koreans, the backbone of political support for Park, remain wary of such projects, which are lucrative for the North, while North Korea has shown no signs of giving up its nuclear weapons programs.

But the agreement to reopen the Kaesong complex was largely seen as giving impetus to Park’s efforts to build trust with the North as a foundation for more serious negotiations on ending the North’s nuclear programs in exchange for helping rebuild its economy.

Park promised during her presidential campaign last year to take a middle course on North Korea: more demanding than that of the liberal governments that failed to get North Korea to pull back from the nuclear program despite years of aid and investment, but less strict than that of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who had curtailed trade and aid in retaliation against the North’s nuclear program and other provocations.

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