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Korean Red Cross Officials Agree on Family Reunions - 2002-12-17

Red Cross officials from North and South Korea have agreed on a sixth set of reunions for families long-separated by divisions of the Korean Peninsula. The reunions were arranged amid growing tensions over North Korea's reactivated nuclear program. North and South Korea Red Cross officials wrapped up three days of talks Tuesday at the North's Diamond Mountain resort, agreeing to another round of reunions for separated Korean families.

A hundred people from each of the two Koreas will be allowed to meet relatives from the other side of the border around the lunar new year holiday, February 1.

The two sides, however, did not get any closer to a deal to set-up a permanent meeting center so that regular reunions can be held rather than negotiations required to set up each one.

Millions of Korean families were separated during the chaos of the division of the peninsula in 1945 and the subsequent war of 1950-1953. They have been barred from communicating with each other because of Cold War tensions ever since.

That changed after Koreas' two leaders held a landmark summit in 2000 and agreed to reunions as part of confidence-building measures aimed at eventual reunification. They also agreed to re-establish a rail and road links.

To that end, North Korea announced Tuesday that it had finished clearing landmines on its side of the heavily fortified border, so construction work could begin.

But these cooperation efforts come amid a much larger threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula: the stand-off between Pyongyang and the international community over the North's resurging nuclear program.

Last week, the North announced it would reactivate its nuclear facilities, which have been frozen under a non-proliferation deal with the United States in 1994. That deal called for the North to dismantle nuclear reactors capable of producing weapons-grade material in exchange for light water nuclear power reactors and regular fuel shipments.

The United States, Japan and South Korea decided last month to halt the oil shipments saying communist North Korea had violated the 1994 deal by secretly continuing its nuclear program.

But Pyongyang says it had no choice but to bring its old reactor on-line to produce badly needed heat and electricity.

The issue has been evolving into a crisis since October. North Korea is now saying it thinks war could be inevitable.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell denied the assertion, re-stating that the United States has no plan to attack the North, but acknowledged the situation is dangerous. He ruled out any talks with North Korea until it visibly abandons its nuclear ambitions.