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article imageNorth, South Korea begin family reunion talks

By Giles Hewitt (AFP)     Sep 7, 2015 in World

North and South Korean Red Cross officials kicked off talks Monday on organising a rare and emotional reunion for families separated by the Korean War.

The discussions at the border truce village of Panmunjom were the product of an agreement the two Koreas reached two weeks ago to end a dangerous military standoff and reduce cross-border tensions.

But given North Korea's past record of manipulating the reunion issue for leverage over the South, there is no guarantee the planned event -- only the second in five years -- will go ahead.

Monday's talks were expected to focus on confirming a date and venue for the event, with the most likely outcome a reunion at the North's Mount Kumgang resort sometime in early October.

Millions of people were separated during the 1950-53 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.

South Korean chief delegate Lee Deok-Haeng (2R)  executive committee member of South Korean Red Cros...
South Korean chief delegate Lee Deok-Haeng (2R), executive committee member of South Korean Red Cross, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Pak Yong-Il during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom, on September 7, 2015
, South Korean Unification Ministry/AFP/File

About 66,000 South Koreans -- many of them in their 80s or 90s -- are on the waiting list for an eventual reunion, but only several hundred can be chosen each time.

"Most of these people are old and in poor health, and they are dying off in their thousands every year," said Jung Jae-Eun, one of the Red Cross officials dealing with the separated families' issue.

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, with several being cancelled at the last moment by North Korea.

- Emotional roller-coaster -

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.

South Korean Red Cross officials receive applications for an expected inter-Korean family reunion pr...
South Korean Red Cross officials receive applications for an expected inter-Korean family reunion programme, at the Red Cross office in Seoul, in August 2013
Jung Yeon-Je, AFP/File

For the last such 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 two Koreas drew up a final list of 100 each 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.

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.

The agreement that produced Monday's talks followed a month of heightened inter-Korean military tensions, which involved a rare artillery exchange across their heavily fortified land border.

Pyongyang has already accused Seoul of spinning the settlement as a North Korean climbdown, and warned that it would scupper the entire deal -- including the family reunion -- if the South continues making "wild remarks".

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