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Koreas holding Red Cross talks to discuss family reunion, humanitarian issues

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea -- The two Koreas are holding Red Cross talks on Friday to discuss organizing a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and other humanitarian issues.

The talks started at around 10 a.m. at a hotel on Mount Kumgang on the North's scenic east coast, according to the unification ministry.

South Korea's four-member delegation is led by Park Kyung-seo, head of the Korean Red Cross. The North sent a three-member delegation headed by Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.

"Following the June 15 joint statement and the Panmunjom Declaration, we have returned to a precious place where we can have a chance to care for the wound and the predicament in our people's mind and explore ways to seek reconciliation and unity," Pak, the North's chief delegate, told at the start of the meeting.

He referred to the inter-Korean agreement reached in the June 15, 2000 summit and the declaration South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un adopted in their summit on April 27 at the truce village of Panmunjom.

"It is in and of itself meaningful in that we have come together in our famous mountain to hold Red Cross talks and discuss a reunion of people torn from their families and relatives," he added.

Park, the South's chief delegate, called for each side to work together to make the meeting a success by holding the talks "from a humanitarian perspective."

Lee Soon-kyu (left), 88, one of the many South Koreans who have family members or relatives in North Korea, relishes being reunited with her 86-year-old husband Oh In-se, right, at a resort on Mount Kumgang on the North`s east coast. (EPA-Yonhap)
Lee Soon-kyu (left), 88, one of the many South Koreans who have family members or relatives in North Korea, relishes being reunited with her 86-year-old husband Oh In-se, right, at a resort on Mount Kumgang on the North`s east coast. (EPA-Yonhap)

Their morning session, attended by all delegates, ended after 45 minutes. Subsequent talks between lead delegates are under way to resolve differences, according to pool reports.

The Red Cross meeting is a follow up on the April summit agreement in which the leaders promised to hold a reunion of people divided by the war on the occasion of the Aug. 15 Liberation Day.

The unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, told reporters that the two sides are having talks on when, how and on what scale they will hold the agreed-upon family reunion event.

If held, it would mark the first family reunion since October 2015.

South Korea has demanded a family reunion be resumed as many of those wishing to be reunited with their long lost families are aging.

Data showed that the registered number of South Koreans seeking to meet their loved ones in the North totaled 132,124 as of end-May, of which only about 57,000 remain alive. Some 86 percent of them are in their 70s and older.

A daunting challenge is to confirm whereabouts of the lost families in North Korea, an issue that requires close cooperation by North Korea.

According to a survey conducted by the unification ministry in 2016, 74.4 percent of separated families did not know if and where their loved ones are living in the North.

A total of 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunion events have been held since the leaders of the two Koreas met in 2000. Some 19,800 people from both sides have been involved in the process.

The two Koreas technically remain at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended only with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Another issue that could be brought up for discussion by North Korea might be a group of female restaurant workers who defected to the South from China in 2016. Their return to the North had been a major precondition for discussing holding a reunion of separated families.

South Korea has claimed that they all defected to the South voluntarily but the North has argued that they came here against their will.

Controversy flared up anew as a local TV network recently aired an interview with a male manager for the workers who said that he coerced the other employees to come with him to the South at the instruction of Seoul's spy agency.

Observers said that the two could also discuss granting humanitarian assistance to the North during the Red Cross meeting as the sense of rapprochement between the two Koreas is growing.

Last year, the Seoul government announced a plan to provide $8 million worth of humanitarian assistance to the North through international aid agencies but the plan was put on the back burner amid escalating tensions caused by the North's nuclear and missile provocations.

The issue of the six South Korean people detained in North Korea, however, is unlikely to be touched upon this time as South Korea's chief delegate, Park, earlier said that he has no such plan for fear that such a sensitive matter could derail efforts to make headway in broader objectives. (Yonhap)