North and South Korea Set Dates for Family Reunions

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SEOUL, South Korea -- In a sign of improving ties, North and South Korea agreed on Friday to revive an emotionally charged humanitarian program next month that allows family members on both sides of the border to meet for the first time since the Korean War six decades ago.

After a day of negotiations, held at the border village of Panmunjom, officials from both capitals agreed to hold a round of family reunions allowing 100 people from each side to meet their relatives from the other side at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea from Sept. 25 to Sept. 30. Another round is expected in November, they said.

Separately, they also agreed to hold online family reunions on Oct. 22 and 23, allowing 40 families from each side to meet their relatives through video conferences.

The revival of family reunions after a three-year hiatus is expected to further accelerate the rival Korean governments' move toward a thaw after months of high tensions. It was particularly welcome news for 73,000 South Koreans -- half of them more than 80 years old -- who are on a waiting list for a chance to meet with relatives in the North. Out of them, only 100 will be selected by lottery for the reunions in September. North Korea is believed to give priority to those considered loyal to its government.

"South and North Korea agreed to continue their efforts to make family reunions regular events, help families learn the fate of their relatives and exchange letters," read the joint agreement signed on Friday.

Hopes for improved ties began to rise in recent weeks, as the rival governments de-escalated their confrontational rhetoric of earlier this year and tensions appeared to ease. On Aug. 14, the Koreas agreed to reopen a joint industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea, that was shut down four months ago.

During the talks on Friday, the chief North Korean negotiator, Pak Yong-il, urged South Korea to seize the momentum created by the Kaesong agreement, South Korean officials said.

In a sharp turnaround from its threats of war earlier this year, North Korea has been calling for inter-Korean reconciliation. It proposed talks to revive a number of joint projects suspended in recent years, including South Korean tours to Diamond Mountain, a scenic destination that was visited by nearly two million South Koreans from 1998 to 2008, when a jointly operated tour program was suspended.

But South Korean officials remain wary of the North's motives. In the past, North Korea has demanded and often won large humanitarian aid shipments from the South in return for agreeing to family reunions. The agreement on Friday made no mention of possible aid for the North.

Millions of Koreans were divided by the Korean War of 1950-53, which ended in a stalemate and a cease-fire. Hundreds of South Korean fishermen said to have been taken to the North in the years after the war have never returned. About 25,000 North Koreans have fled to the South, many of them leaving their families behind, since famine struck the North in the mid-1990s. With no exchanges of letters, e-mails or telephone calls allowed across the border, family reunions remain a highly emotional issue.

About 129,000 people from South Korea alone originally applied for the family reunion program. But only 22,000 people in total, from both Koreas, were allowed to meet during 18 rounds of government-arranged reunions from 1985 to 2010, when the program was suspended as inter-Korean relations soured. On average, 2,000 South Koreans on the waiting list die each year.

South Koreans were reminded of the fate of these so-called separated families on Friday, when their news media reported that a fisherman they said had been kidnapped and taken to the North decades ago had succeeded in fleeing the country and was about to return home.

Choi Sung-yong, a longtime activist who has helped bring several South Korean fishermen and prisoners from the Korean War out of the North, said the fisherman, Chun Wook-pyo, 68, left North Korea on Aug. 11 and was handed over to South Korean officials three days later in a "third country" in Asia. Most escapees from North Korea travel through China.

The Seoul government declined to confirm the news reports. In similar past cases, it has confirmed such escapes only after the men arrive in the South.

Mr. Chun was among 25 South Koreans on two fishing boats who were taken to the North in December 1972. Mr. Choi released to South Korean news media what he said was Mr. Chun's handwritten appeal to Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, to arrange his trip home.

Most of the thousands of South Korean fishermen alleged to have been taken to the North over the years were eventually allowed to return, but more than 450 of them never did. North Korea has denied holding them against their will, but eight who made it back to the South since 2000 have said they were forced to stay in the North, where they lived under constant surveillance.

Also Friday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said an unarmed North Korean had defected to a South Korean island west of Seoul, making his way across the heavily guarded maritime border during a stormy night and knocking on a villager's door early Friday. South Korean officials are interrogating the defector, the ministry said.

Another North Korean reached the same island in September by clinging to a log and swimming.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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