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article imageNorth, South Korea to hold family reunion in October

By Park Chan-Kyong (AFP)     Sep 7, 2015 in World

North and South Korea agreed Tuesday 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 organising the event -- from October 20 to the 26th -- 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 a date and venue will be seen as a further positive sign, although the North has agreed to reunions in the past -- only to cancel at the last minute.

South Korean chief delegate Lee Deok-Haeng (L)  executive committee member of South Korean Red Cross...
South Korean chief delegate Lee Deok-Haeng (L), executive committee member of South Korean Red Cross, speaking to his N.Korean counterpart Pak Yong-Il during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom, on September 7, 2015
-, S.Korean Unification Ministry/AFP

Seoul was understood to have been pushing for an earlier date -- before North Korea celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Worker's Party on October 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.

- Millions separated -

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 October 10 celebrations.

South Koreans aboard a bus wave good-bye to their North Korean relatives as they leave a family reun...
South Koreans aboard a bus wave good-bye to their North Korean relatives as they leave a family reunion at the resort area of Mount Kumgang, N.Korea, in February 2014
-, AFP/File

Millions of people were separated during the 1950-53 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 an eventual reunion, but only a very limited number can be chosen each time.

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

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

General view of the venue for North and South Korean family reunions  the resort area of Mount Kumga...
General view of the venue for North and South Korean family reunions, the resort area of Mount Kumgang in N.Korea, pictured in 2014

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 2014, 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.

- 'Short of expectations' -

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.

"It falls far short of our expectations," Shim told AFP.

"If it carries on like this, what chance do the 60,000 others on the waiting list have of getting their turn?" he added.

Lee Duk-Haeng said the South planned to hand over the names of 50 South Koreans believed to have been held as prisoners of war in the North.

If any are found to be alive, their relatives in the South will be given a priority slot in Seoul's final list of 100 participants, he said.

For the lucky ones who do take part, the reunions are hugely emotional -- almost traumatic -- affairs, with many of the elderly participants breaking down and sobbing as they cling to each other.

They typically last several days and the joy of the reunion is tempered by the pain of the inevitable -- and this time permanent -- separation at the end.

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