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North Korea Agrees to Talks on Reunions

FILE - South Koreans on a bus bid farewell to their North Korean relatives after temporary family reunions at Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, in this November 5, 2010 photo.

North Korea's Red Cross has agreed to working-level talks with its South Korean counterpart to discuss a resumption of reunions for Korean families separated by the Korean War six decades ago.

On Tuesday, the two sides agreed to take a series of steps to ease tensions and promote exchanges, including the resumption of reunions of the separated families.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Friday the South Korean Red Cross proposed talks on the reunion issue with its North Korean counterpart for September 7 at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.

The agreement calls for reunions to be held sometime around the Korean harvest holiday of Chuseok, which this year falls on September 27.

The last set of family reunions was held in February 2014. While thousands of Koreans are on the waiting list for a visit with family members on the other side of the border, only a few hundred are allowed at each reunion. Many Koreans have died without seeing loved ones since the Korean War split the nation in the early 1950s.

The latest proposal has renewed hope for many elderly South Koreans hoping to reunite with their relatives in North Korea.

“We welcome the news wholeheartedly. Future talks should address fundamental issues the separated families are facing. We will wait and see,” Lee Sang-chul, who leads an association of South Koreans with families in the North, told VOA.

Lee said the most imminent issue is a lack of information. “Most of all, we want to know whether our families are alive or not. If they are alive, we want to know their whereabouts,” said Lee.

Lee called on both governments to move quickly, saying half of the separated families who applied for a reunion have passed away without seeing their relatives.

“Our earnest hope is to visit our hometown just one time before we die.”

The two governments have arranged 19 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. The last reunions were held in early 2014. Since then, South Korea has been pushing for a resumption of the reunions, but North Korea has rejected the move, linking it to political relations between the two sides.

In the South, some 66,000 reunion applicants are on the waiting list and more than 70 percent of them are over the age of 70.

According to the South Korean Red Cross, reunion participants will be decided from a pool of applicants randomly selected by a computer.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report.