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South Korea Calls for Regular Inter-Korean Family Reunions

FILE - South Korean Kwon O-Hui (L) cries with her North Korean relative Ri Han-Sik (R) as they bid farewell following their three-day family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's southeastern coast, Oct. 22, 2015.

South Korea is pushing for regular reunions for families separated since the Korean War as a rare inter-Korean reunion wrapped up.

Some 250 South Koreans returned home Monday afternoon after an emotional farewell meeting with their relatives in North Korea, ending the week-long event that allowed hundreds of elderly North and South Koreans to reunite after six decades of separation.

South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said Sunday that Seoul is “launching a multifaceted effort” to exchange letters and regularize the reunions.

North Korea also showed interest in improving ties with South Korea.

“It is our consistent position that relations between the two Koreas be improved,” Ri Chung Bok, head of the North Korean Red Cross, told reporters last week.

“We will discuss regularization of the reunions and exchanges of letters with South Korean counterparts,” Ri added.

Seoul has long sought more participants and more reunions, saying time is limited for many separated families.

A South Korean Unification Ministry official told VOA about 10 percent of some 66,000 elderly South Koreans who are on a waiting list to see their families in North Korea are over age 90.

“At a minimum, the families should be allowed to check up on the whereabouts of their relatives on a regular basis,” said Kim Soo-am, a senior research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification, South Korea’s state-run research institute.

Some analysts in Seoul remain cautious about the prospect of more reunions, citing unstable political relations between the two Koreas.

On Saturday, the South Korean navy fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat that crossed into its waters in the Yellow Sea, forcing the North Korean vessel to retreat. North Korea accused South Korea of committing a “military provocation” that “disrupted the hard-won mood for improved ties” between the two sides.

The latest gathering, the 20th reunion arranged by both governments since 2000, was a key part of an inter-Korean deal reached in August that ended a military standoff between the two sides over North Korea’s alleged land mine attacks on South Korean soldiers.

Seoul has been seeking to resume the reunions since February 2014, when Pyongyang abruptly suspended talks for them because of political relations with Seoul.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.