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North and South Korea agree to hold family reunions this month

By Paula Hancocks. K.J. Kwon and Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 6:08 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The reunions will take place between February 20 and 25, South Korea says
  • North Korea canceled previously scheduled reunions last year
  • Seoul says it told Pyongyang that "what happened last year cannot be repeated"
  • North Korea has called for better sides, but tensions remain over U.S.-South Korean drills

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- North and South Korea have agreed to hold reunions later this month of families separated since the Korean War, Seoul said Wednesday.

If they go ahead, the meetings of divided Korean families would be the first to take place since 2010.

The reunions of about 100 people from each country are scheduled to take place between February 20 and 25, the South Korean unification ministry said Wednesday, following face-to-face talks between the two sides.

But those scheduled to participate are likely to be aware that North Korea has unceremoniously pulled the plug on such meetings in the past.

Past disappointment

Reunions were due to take place last September, but Pyongyang canceled them with only a few days notice, accusing Seoul of souring ties between the two countries.

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South Korea says it sought reassurances in Wednesday's talks that the families' hopes wouldn't be dashed this time around.

"Our side expressed the position that what happened last year cannot be repeated," the unification ministry said. "The North shared the view."

The reunions are an emotive issue. And time is running out for many of the surviving members of the families that were split by the 1950-53 war between the two Koreas. A lot of them are now in their 80s and 90s.

Tens of thousands of people in South Korea are on the list of those wanting to take part in the reunions.

This month's planned reunions are scheduled to take place at the site where previous ones were held: Mount Kumgang, a resort on the North Korean side of the border that used to be jointly operated by both sides.

Calls for better ties

The agreement on the date for the reunions follows a series of calls by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime for better relations between the two countries.

South Korean officials had said they wanted to see action rather than words from Pyongyang, including moving ahead with family reunions.

Wednesday's deal is a small step forward. But a contentious issue between the two sides is also looming at the end of this month: annual military exercises in the region by South Korean and U.S. forces.

The drills infuriate North Korea, which says it sees them as a prelude to an invasion. Last year, it ratcheted up its threatening rhetoric to alarming levels as the exercises took place.

In its calls so far this year for better relations, North Korea has asked South Korea not to take part in the drills -- a request that Seoul and Washington have rejected.

North Korea blames South, cancels family reunions in September

CNN's Paula Hancocks and K.J. Kwon reported from Seoul, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong.

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