Two Koreas gear up for first family reunions in three years

Tearful North Koreans wave goodbye to their South Korean family members aboard a bus heading back to Seoul at Mount Geumgang on Nov. 5, 2010.

The two Koreas are quickening preparations for the first reunions of separated families in three years by exchanging the lists of participants and readying venues and equipment.

One hundred people from each side are scheduled to reunite with their loved ones at Mount Geumgangsan on Sep 25-30. The finalists are to be announced Monday by the Red Cross.

Nearly 100 South Korean engineers and workers are currently staying at the scenic mountain resort to carry out repairs and maintenance on facilities that have been idle since the last gathering in 2010.

But the two sides were at odds over lodging for South Koreans. Seoul proposed the Eoikumkang and Mount Kumkang hotels, which were also used in the two most recent events in 2009 and 2010, while Pyongyang offered Haekumkang Hotel and Hyundai Living Hall, citing existing reservations.

Seoul is sticking to its initial suggestion, saying only those two hotels are capable of accommodating all the South Korean delegates, as they have 384 rooms and a 740-person total capacity.

In comparison, Haekumkang has 159 rooms with a 310-person capacity and Hyundai Living Hall is a lodging facility for employees of Hyundai Asan Corp., which operated tour projects there until 2008.

"Given the accommodation capacity, there will be trouble without the two hotels," Unification Ministry spokesperson Kim Hyung-suk told reporters Friday.

"We explained our position and North Korea has not expressed any contrary view. We are making preparations on the pretext that the events will take place there."

The divided states first held a reunion of families displaced by the 1950-53 Korean War in 1985.

After a 15-year hiatus, the project kicked into high gear following a historic summit in 2000 between former President Kim Dae-jung and late strongman Kim Jong-il and their June 15 joint declaration, which paved the way for humanitarian and economic cooperation.

There were a total of 18 rounds of face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings involving more than 22,000 people from 4,380 families.

The programme was halted in 2010 in the wake of the North's sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery firing on a border island in the West Sea. Cross-border relations were further frayed by a string of missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

In line with a recent breakthrough in Gaeseong, the inert programme is coming back to life. Seoul called the factory park a "touchstone" for inter-Korean exchanges and collaboration.

The South has also offered to hold talks next month on resuming the tour project, which was suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July 2008 when she strolled into an off-limits area.

Meanwhile, the separated families are becoming an ever more urgent matter due to their old age and failing health, prompting Seoul to improve ties with Pyongyang and do more to regularize the reunions.

About half of the 72,500 survivors are aged over 80 and 30 per cent are in their 70s, Unification Ministry data shows.

Their chances for participation are thinning given the limited capacity compared with the number of applicants and still strained cross-border ties despite recent improvements.

In an Aug. 23 joint statement, the two sides agreed "to continue efforts to resolve the issue of separated families fundamentally by holding the programme on a regular basis, verifying whether family members are alive or not, and arranging exchanges of letters between them."

"We see this agreement as the beginning of the Park administration's process to tackle the separated families issue," a ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.