South and North Korea Thursday exchanged a list of participants for a rare inter-Korean family reunion, moving closer to an implementation of a key agreement between the two Koreas.
Red Cross officials from the two sides met at the Panmunjom truce village that divides the two Koreas and exchanged the list with names of 90 South Koreans and 97 North Koreans, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry. The reunion will allow families separated by the Korean War six decades ago to be reunited with their relatives.
In late August, the two Koreas reached a deal that eased tensions on the Korean peninsula over North Korea's alleged land mine attacks on South Korean soldiers. The deal calls for both sides to take a series of steps to promote dialogue and exchanges, including a reunion for the separated families. Seoul has pushed for the resumption of the reunions since early last year, when Pyongyang unilaterally stopped talks for a reunion over political relations with Seoul. Many analysts in Seoul see the resumption of the reunions as an important first step toward improving inter-Korean ties.
Recently, North Korea threatened to cancel the planned reunions over comments by South Korea's president about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and human rights records.
Key to inter-Korean ties
South Korea's Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told lawmakers Seoul will seek talks with Pyongyang to discuss regularization of reunions and increasing the size of the participants list.
"We are working to confirm whether they are still alive. We are conducting a one-to-one survey on some 60,000 people. Once the survey is done, I hope we can hold reunions in a more effective manner through exchanges of letters and meetings," said Hong in reference to elderly South Koreans who once applied for reunions.
According to the Unification Ministry, nearly 130,000 South Koreans were registered as separated families between 1988 and July 2015. Almost half of them have died without seeing their relatives in North Korea. More than 80 percent of the applicants who are still alive are over age 70.
The reunion event is set for October 20-26 at Mount Kumgang, North Korea's resort. The two sides will hold two rounds of reunions during the event. The North Korean participants will meet with their families from South Korea first, and the South Koreans will meet with their relatives in North Korea during the second round of reunions. A team of South Korean officials and technicians is staying at the resort to repair the facilities of a meeting room.
Tension over missile threats
The reunions come amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula over North Korea's missile and nuclear threats. Analysts speculated Pyongyang could launch a long-range rocket to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party October 10. However, South Korean officials say Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch during the celebrations seems unlikely. Instead, the communist country could fire short-range projectiles to mark the anniversary, according to officials in Seoul.
"There are signs of short-range projectile firings," said South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo in a parliamentary audit session Thursday. Han said North Korea might fire the projectiles not from the country's main rocket launch site in Tongchang-ri but from other locations.
The two governments have arranged 19 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000, and the last round of reunions was held in February 2014.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.