Two Koreas resume talks on family reunions
Fri, Oct 01, 2010

SEOUL, Oct 1, 2010 (AFP) - North and South Korea launched fresh talks Friday on restarting a reunion programme for families separated by war 60 years ago, amid continuing tensions over the deadly sinking of one of Seoul's warships.

The two sides, who made little progress at two previous meetings, were still talking in the afternoon.

Seoul's unification ministry declined to say whether any differences had been narrowed during the meeting at Kaesong, just north of the border. Relaunching the reunions is seen as a way to ease months of high tensions sparked by the sinking.

But separate military talks Thursday - the first in two years - made no progress.

The South, which says a North Korean torpedo sank the corvette in March with the loss of 46 lives, demanded an apology and punishment for those responsible.

The North at Thursday's meeting repeated denials of responsibility for the tragedy. It threatened to open fire on sites in the South from where activists launch anti-regime leaflets across the border.

Pyongyang in recent months has also threatened to shell loudspeakers installed south of the border to broadcast anti-regime messages.

The loudspeakers, which are not yet switched on, were put in place as part of the Seoul government's reprisals for the naval tragedy. The leaflets are launched by private activists and Seoul says it cannot legally stop them.

Tens of thousands of Koreans on both sides of the heavily fortified border have not seen family members since the 1950-53 war. There are no civilian mail or phone services and many do not even know whether relatives are alive or dead.

Only about 20,800 family members have joined the reunions - one fifth of these via video link - since the programme began in earnest in 2000. The face-to-face reunions typically last three days.

About 80,000 elderly people in the South alone are desperate for a chance to see loved ones but officials say up to 4,000 of them die each year before getting the chance.

Two previous rounds of talks last month got bogged down when the two sides could not agree which building they should use at a jointly-run tourism resort at Mount Kumgang.

Previous reunions were held at Kumgang on the east coast of North Korea and the South has built a special centre there.

But the South banned its people from visiting the resort after a North Korean soldier shot dead a visiting Seoul housewife in 2008.

The South says it will not consider resuming the tours until the North allows an on-site investigation into the shooting and gives firm safety guarantees.

The North, which previously earned millions of dollars a year from the tours, has seized or sealed off the South's buildings at Kumgang including the reunion centre in protest at the delay.

The North is demanding that the South lift its tour ban before it agrees on a venue for reunions, according to Seoul officials.

The South accuses the North of trying to politicise a humanitarian programme by linking it to the resumption of the tours.

Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek said Monday the North should not "politicise" the issue of family reunions.

"North Korea must cooperate in the fundamental resolving of inter-Korean humanitarian issues including the regularisation of family reunions," Hyun said. Pyongyang, in turn, has said the South is being insincere about the issue.

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