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Page last updated at 07:48 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 08:48 UK

Koreas to resume family reunions

North Korean Red Cross official Choe Song-ik (L) and his South Korean counterpart Kim Young-chol (R) arrive for talks at Mount Kumgang - 28 August 2009
The agreement was reached by Red Cross officials from both sides

North and South Korea have agreed to resume family reunions that were called off by the North two years ago, the two sides have announced in a statement.

The reunions, begun in 2000, were shelved amid worsening relations, but talks on the issue resumed this week.

Several hundred families split by the 1950-53 Korean War will be able to meet for several days from late September, the joint North-South statement said.

The agreement is the latest sign of tensions easing between the Koreas.

Time running out

Red Cross officials from both countries reached agreement after three days of talks at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea - where the family reunions are to be held from 26 September to 1 October.

The families will be allowed to stay for a few days, spending time and sharing meals together, before returning to their homes.

Tens of thousands of families were separated by the war and the number who will be briefly reunited is a tiny fraction of those on the waiting list, says the BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul. For the rest, time is running out, our correspondent adds.

Two Korean sisters are reunited for the first time in 2000 after being split during the 1950-53 war - 15 August 2000 file photo
Family reunions were regularly held earlier in the decade

The North and South are still technically at war, as a peace treaty was never concluded at the end of the war.

There are still no exchanges by post, telephone or e-mail between people living across the heavily fortified border.

The South Korean officials used the talks to raise other issues, including the status of 500 people, mostly fishermen, believed to have been seized by the North in recent decades and never returned.

The South also believes hundreds of its prisoners of war remain alive in the North. Pyongyang has refused to discuss the issue, claiming they have all voluntarily defected to the North, says our correspondent.

UN sanctions

In the early part of the decade, the two countries regularly held Red Cross talks to discuss family reunions and other humanitarian issues. About 16,000 families were briefly reunited.

However the reunions were stopped after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008, amid North Korean anger at his policy of ending unconditional aid handouts.

He has tied a resumption of aid to progress on North Korean nuclear disarmament.

Earlier this year, relations between North Korea and the rest of the world were extremely strained. It was heavily criticised in May for conducting its second nuclear test and a series of ballistic missile launches and the UN Security Council agreed to tighten sanctions against North Korea.

But the agreement to hold the Red Cross talks is just one of a series of conciliatory gestures by North Korea in recent weeks.

Last week, Northern officials attended the funeral of South Korea's former President Kim Dae-jung.

Former US President Bill Clinton also visited the North recently, and secured the release of two American journalists detained there.

North Korea also announced this month that it would ease restrictions on cross-border traffic imposed last year amid the rising tension.

Some analysts have said the moves may be an attempt by Pyongyang to gain increased aid or foreign currency as sanctions begin to bite the isolated country.



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