Koreas agree to 1st family reunions in 1 year
SEOUL, South Korea – Red Cross officials from the two Koreas agreed Friday to hold reunions for families separated by the Korean War amid mixed signals from North Korea on easing tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship.
One hundred families from each country will attend the meetings from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5 at a hotel and reunion center at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.
The two Koreas also agreed to another round of Red Cross talks in the North's border city of Kaesong on Oct. 26-27 to discuss ways to hold reunions regularly as well as other unspecified humanitarian issues, the ministry said.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency confirmed the agreement, noting in a dispatch from Pyongyang that the reunions will bring "great joy" to all Koreans.
Millions of families were separated following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two countries technically at war. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens across the heavily fortified border.
So far, more than 20,800 separated families have been reunited through brief face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000.
The reunions, which have not been held for a year, could help restore calm between North and South Korea. Their relations have been especially tense since the March sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. An international investigation blamed the attack on North Korea, but Pyongyang denied involvement.
Last month, North Korea freed the crew of a South Korean fishing boat seized in August and later proposed staging the reunions as part of a conciliatory gesture toward Seoul.
The South Korean Red Cross subsequently announced plans to send 5,000 tons of rice and other aid to help the North recover from recent flooding in its northwest.
Despite those positive signs, the North warned during separate military talks with South Korea on Thursday that it might fire artillery on South Korean activists who disperse anti-North leaflets.
The North warned that its artillery units were "getting fully ready to strike the spotted centers for scattering leaflets," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported late Thursday.
North Korean defectors and South Korean activists regularly float leaflets across the heavily fortified border in a campaign to urge North Koreans to rise up against leader Kim Jong Il.
The North regularly threatens military retaliation against the South, though the threat to fire artillery at the leaflet launch sites appeared to be a first. Seoul's Defense Ministry said it had no comment.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, dismissed the talk as typical North Korean rhetoric, and said the country was unlikely to risk worsening inter-Korean ties by carrying it out. "It is an empty threat," Kim said.
Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector in Seoul who is a key organizer of a campaign to send leaflets via balloons, also brushed off the threat and said his group will send them on Oct. 10, the 65th anniversary of the founding of the North's Workers Party.
"I don't care about the North's threats and blackmail at all," Park said, noting that the leaflets will be critical of Kim's recent move to hand over power to his youngest son.
Kim earlier this week promoted his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to four-star general and gave him key political posts aimed at an eventual succession in what would became the country's second hereditary power transition. The elder Kim took over the authoritarian country in 1994 after the death of his father, national founder Kim Il Sung.
Separately, some 50 South Korean activists burned pictures of Kim Jong Il and his son as well as a North Korean flag in central Seoul. Some held signs reading: "Down with Hereditary Succession."
Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea ended five-day military exercises in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean peninsula, near where the South Korean ship sank, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry.
Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon and Seulki Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.