Red Cross chief in first N. Korea visit in 21 years

SEOUL (AFP) - The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flew into Pyongyang on Tuesday - the first visit to North Korea by the head of the humanitarian agency in 21 years.

Mr Peter Maurer arrived days before Red Cross officials from North and South Korea were due to sit down to discuss resuming reunions for Korean families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

"The visit ... is an opportunity to reaffirm the ICRC's readiness to help resolve humanitarian issues on the Korean peninsula," an ICRC statement quoted Mr Maurer as saying.

"The plight of the family members who remain separated by the Korean War, many years after the cessation of hostilities, will be among the issues addressed," the statement said.

Mr Maurer's three-day visit came as a UN Commission of Inquiry opened hearings on Tuesday in Seoul on North Korea's human rights record, with defectors providing harrowing testimony on abuses in the country's gulag system.

The ICRC has had a permanent presence in North Korea for more than 10 years, and supports a physical rehabilitation centre in Pyongyang together with the national Red Cross.

The talks on renewing inter-Korean family reunions are due to begin on Friday.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the war, which sealed the peninsula's division. Most have died without having had a chance to meet family members last seen six decades ago.

About 72,000 South Koreans from separated families - nearly half of them aged over 80 - are still alive and waiting for a rare chance to join the highly competitive reunion events, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.

At the reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans head home again.

For those too infirm to travel, reunions via video conferencing have been arranged in recent years.

The last event took place in late 2010, after which the programme was suspended in the wake of North Korea's shelling of a South Korean border island.