SEOUL • North and South Korea agreed yesterday to resume reunions for families separated by the Korean War in August - the first such meetings since 2015 and the latest step in a remarkable diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.
Millions were separated during the 1950-53 conflict that sealed the division of the two Koreas.
Most died without the chance to see or hear from their relatives on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.
The resumption of the reunions was among the agreements reached between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in at their landmark summit in April.
Officials from both sides met at the North's scenic Mount Kumgang resort yesterday and set a date for late August.
The reunion will be held from Aug 20-26 and 100 participants will be selected from each side, said a joint Seoul-Pyongyang statement released by the South's Unification Ministry.
South Korean officials will begin inspections of the Mount Kumgang resort - the venue of the reunions - from next week, and the two sides will exchange their final lists of participants by Aug 4, it added.
Only about 57,000 people remain alive who are registered with the South Korean Red Cross to meet their separated relatives, and most are over 70.
For the few chosen to take part, the experience is often very emotional, as they are given just three days to make up for decades of time apart, followed by another separation at the end - in all likelihood permanent.
According to a survey conducted by the Unification Ministry in 2016, 74.4 per cent of separated families were unaware of the whereabouts of their family members in the North.
"It will be difficult for the North to locate the family members, who are now very old or deceased, with their current system and lack of technology," Professor Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told The Korea Herald .
Prof Koh added that it was known that North Korea fed malnourished members of the separated families to make them look more "presentable" at the reunions.
The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic inter-Korea summit in 2000 and the reunions were initially held annually, but strained cross-border relations have made them rare. The two Koreas have held 20 rounds of face-to-face family reunions since 2000.
North Korea has a lengthy track record of using the issue of divided families for political purposes, refusing proposals for regular reunions and cancelling scheduled events at the last minute.
Pyongyang has previously said it will not agree to family reunions unless Seoul returns several of its citizens, including a group of waitresses who defected from a restaurant in China.
South Korea has claimed that they all defected to the South voluntarily, but the North has argued that they went there against their will.
Their return to the North had been a major precondition for discussing holding a reunion of separated families, according to Yonhap news agency.
It is unknown whether the defectors were brought up at yesterday's meeting, but the two sides agreed to continue discussions on "humanitarian issues" through further Red Cross talks, according to the joint statement.
The rapprochement on the Korean peninsula was triggered earlier this year when Mr Kim decided to send athletes, cheerleaders and his sister to the Winter Olympics in the South.