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North, South Korea Exchange Lists for Coveted Family Reunions

North and South Korea are a step closer to holding another round of reunions for families separated by the 1950s war. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans are desperate to see relatives before they become too elderly to make the trip.

South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung announced an important logistical step in holding inter-Korean family reunions.

He says North and South Korea have exchanged results of each country's search for surviving relatives separated by the Korean War.

The exchange will help each side narrow down a final list of 100 Koreans each who are considered prime candidates for a six-day reunion at the North's Mount Kumgang resort. The reunions are scheduled to start later this month.

North and South Korea remain technically at war. A temporary 1953 armistice paused fighting three years after the North invaded the South, but it has never been replaced with a peace treaty.

About 127,000 Koreans have registered for possible reunions, having been isolated from direct relatives during the decades of cold war between the two sides. Most are now elderly, and say they desperately long for a chance to see family members again before they die.

South Korea says the age and health of reunion applicants will be of primary importance in selecting finalists for its side.

No formal North-South reunion program existed until the historic 2000 summit between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Lee Sang-chul is the chairman of a U.N.-affiliated organization that helps separated families. He says during the past 10 years, South Korea has handed the North too much assistance, for too few reunions.

Lee says the past two South Korean presidents gave about $1.6 billion worth of rice and fertilizer to North Korea. In return, he says North Korea permitted 1,600 reunions. Do the math, says Lee, and that is a cost of $1 million per reunion.