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South Korea to Begin Survey on Separated Families

Gunung Sinabung memuntahkan lava panas terlihat dari Kabupaten Karo, Sumatra Utara.
Gunung Sinabung memuntahkan lava panas terlihat dari Kabupaten Karo, Sumatra Utara.

South Korea is launching a project to find out how many elderly citizens who once applied for reunions with their North Korean relatives are still alive or able to travel.

The unprecedented effort to reach out to tens of thousands of seniors follows a rare inter-Korean agreement reached last week that ended a military standoff.

Under that deal, the two Koreas agreed to take steps to reduce tension and encourage exchanges, including the resumption of reunions of families separated since the Korean War six decades ago.

The South Korean Red Cross opened a call center Tuesday in Seoul to contact some 66,000 South Koreans waiting to be united with their families in the North.

About 100 professional consultants will call the applicants to inquire about their condition and intention to participate in the reunion. The two-week process is aimed at drafting a list of candidates for reunions. The two Koreas will exchange lists to decide final participants.

“The reunion of separated families is the joys and sorrows of the elderly,” Kim Sung-joo, president of the South Korean Red Cross, said at the opening of the center.

Nearly 130,000 South Koreans were registered as separated families between 1988 and July 2015, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. However, almost half of them have died without seeing their relatives in North Korea. More than 80 percent of the applicants who survived are over age 70.

Last month, South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed to exchange a list of separated families who are still alive by the end of this year. In a meeting with senior aides Tuesday, Park repeated a call for the reunions to resume as planned.

Last week, the South Korean Red Cross proposed talks with its North Korean counterpart on September 7 to discuss the reunions, and the North accepted the offer. In the talks, the two sides are expected to decide some details of the event, including dates and the number of participants from each side.

South Korean officials also hope that the talks could address the South’s proposal to regularize the reunions.

South Korean officials said a meeting room at Mount Kumgang, the North’s famous resort, was a likely venue for the reunions.

The two governments have arranged 19 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. The last reunions were held in February 2014.

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