South Korea team crosses into North Korea to prepare for family reunions

A file photo taken on Feb 21, 2014, shows a general view of the venue of North and South Korean family reunions at the resort area of Mount Kumgang, North Korea.
A file photo taken on Feb 21, 2014, shows a general view of the venue of North and South Korean family reunions at the resort area of Mount Kumgang, North Korea. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A group of South Korean officials and workers crossed into North Korea on on Thursday (Sept 24) to help prepare for a rare reunion next month of families separated by the Korean War.

The Oct 20 to Oct 26 reunion will be only the second such event in the last five years and there are concerns that North Korea may still cancel at the last minute - as it has done in the past.

But Seoul's Unification Ministry said it was proceeding with preparations, with 35 people, mostly maintenance workers, driving through the eastern section of the heavily militarised border en route to the Mount Kumgang resort venue.

The resort - developed by South Korea's giant Hyundai Group - was once a symbol of inter-Korea reconciliation, hosting thousands of South Korean tourists allowed to travel under the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement pioneered by then president Kim Dae-Jung in the late 1990s.

Seoul halted the tours in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed after straying into a military area.

Unification Ministry spokesman Park Soo Jin said the team that crossed into the North on Thursday was tasked with checking the resort's overall infrastructure - including running water and electricity.

"Several dozen South Korean workers will travel in and out of the resort between now and Oct 14," she said.

Millions of people were separated during the 1950-1953 Korean War that sealed the division between the two Koreas.

Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.

About 66,000 South Koreans - many of them in their 80s or 90s - are on the waiting list for an eventual reunion, but only a very limited number are chosen each time.

North and South are each selecting 100 people to attend next month's event, which is being held in line with an agreement reached last month aimed at defusing military tensions on the peninsula.

Pyongyang has a lengthy track record of manipulating the divided families' issue for political purposes, refusing proposals for regular reunions and cancelling scheduled events over some perceived slight.

There has been widespread speculation that the North is planning a satellite rocket launch to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party on Oct 10.

The North insists its space programme is purely scientific, but the United States, South Korea and their allies deem any such rocket launch to be a disguised ballistic missile test that violates UN resolutions.

If the North goes ahead regardless, it will trigger a spike in military tensions on the peninsula that is likely to count the family reunion among its first victims.