Wed, Sep 09, 2015 - Page 1 News List

Koreas agree on family reunion date

OCTOBER:Families from the two Koreas are to meet next month, with each side sending 100 participants. The meeting would be the second in the past five years

AFP, SEOUL

North and South Korea yesterday agreed to hold a reunion for families separated by the Korean War — the fruit of a deal struck last month after cross-border tensions came close to boiling over into outright conflict.

The reunion would be only the second to be held in five years in North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort, with 100 participants from each side.

The two Koreas had committed themselves to organizing the event — from Oct. 20 to Oct. 26 — two weeks ago in an accord that ended a dangerous military standoff and pulled both sides back from the brink of an armed conflict.

The fact that they have followed through by agreeing on a date and venue is seen as a further positive sign, although the North has agreed to reunions in the past — only to cancel at the last minute.

Seoul was understood to have been pushing for an earlier date — before North Korea celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party on Oct. 10.

Pyongyang is planning a massive military parade and there has been speculation it might also launch a long-range rocket — a move that would trigger fresh UN sanctions and threaten the holding of the reunion.

The final dates were agreed at all-night talks between North and South Korean Red Cross officials in the border truce village of Panmunjom.

The chief South Korean delegate, Lee Duk-haeng, confirmed that his side had requested a reunion at the “earliest possible date,” but the North side demurred, citing preparations for the Oct. 10 celebrations.

Millions of people were separated during the 1950-1953 Korean conflict that sealed the division between the two Koreas.

Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.

About 66,000 South Koreans — many of them in their 80s or 90s — are on the waiting list for a reunion, but only a very limited number can be chosen each time.

The reunion program began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, and was initially an annual event.

However, strained cross-border relations have allowed only one reunion in the past five years.

For those on the waiting list, the reunion selection process is an emotional roller-coaster — raising hopes of a meeting they have longed for, but which, statistically, they are very unlikely to experience.

For the last event in February last year, a computer was used to randomly select 500 candidates, after taking age and family background into account.

That number was reduced to 200 after interviews and medical exams, and the final list of 100 was drawn up after checking if relatives were still alive on the other side.

And even after all that, the reunion almost never happened, with 11th-hour, high-level negotiations required to prevent the North cancelling over South Korea’s refusal to postpone annual military drills.

Shim Goo-seob, president of an association representing separated families in South Korea, said he was disappointed that each side had again been limited to just 100 participants.

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