Torn apart for 70 years, now Korean families will be reunited

South Korean officials check applications for the inter-Korean family reunion. Picture: Getty/AFP
South Korean officials check applications for the inter-Korean family reunion. Picture: Getty/AFP
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NORTH and South Korea agreed yesterday to hold reunions next month of families separated by the Korean War in the early 1950s, a small but important sign of progress for rivals that just last month were threatening each other with war.

One hundred mostly elderly people from each country will be reunited with their relatives on October 20-26 at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry and North Korean state media.

The decision came after overnight talks among the Koreas’ Red Cross officials at the border village of Panmunjom that began on Monday. The Koreas initially agreed to push for the reunions after striking a deal last month that eased a stand-off that had flared after a mine explosion blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers.

The highly emotional reunions have not happened since early last year. But even yesterday’s announcement does not bring any guarantee of success. The rivals have a long history of failing to follow through on reconciliation efforts.

Planned reunions in 2013 were scrapped at the last minute because of North Korean anger in part over its claim that the South was trying to overthrow Pyongyang’s government.

For the last reunion 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.

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

Most applicants are now in their 70s or older and are desperate to see their loved ones before they die. Many Koreans do not even know whether relatives on the other side of the border are still alive because their governments mostly ban the exchange of letters, phone calls or emails.

Some foreign analysts also remain sceptical about inter-Korean ties because of speculation that North Korea will fire what it calls a satellite to celebrate the 70th birthday on October 10 of its ruling party. Similar past launches triggered an international stand-off as South Korea and other neighbouring countries called them disguised tests for long-range missiles. Such a launch would endanger the reunions.

About 22,500 Koreans had participated in brief reunions - 18,800 in person and the others by video - during a period of detente. None were given a second chance to meet their relatives, according to South Korea’s Red Cross.

South Korean officials have long called for holding reunions more regularly and expanding the number of people taking part. North Korea is seen as worrying that doing so could open the country to influence from the more affluent South Korea and threaten the ruling party’s grip on power.

During the talks, South Korea reiterated its demands that both countries regularise reunions, and allow separated family members to check whether their loved ones are still alive and exchange letters.

North Korea wanted to focus on next month’s reunion, chief South Korean negotiator Lee Duk-haeng told reporters in a televised briefing.