South Korea proposes holding family reunions with North in mid-Feb

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea proposed on Monday holding family reunions for those separated by the Korean War in mid-February, ahead of joint military drills with the United States that North Korea wants cancelled.

Seoul came up with the dates after the North unexpectedly announced on Friday it was willing to hold the event - the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang that the South has treated with scepticism.

The South suggested the reunions take place at the North's Mount Kumgang resort from February 17 to 21.

That would sandwich the reunion between the February 16 birthday of North Korea's late leader Kim Jong Il - an important national holiday - and the joint exercises that are scheduled to begin at the end of the month.

"We hope that the North will show positive reactions to our proposal and that the family reunion(s) will be held smoothly to open new opportunities in inter-Korea ties," the South's Unification Ministry said.

The ministry said it had proposed a meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday to hammer out details.

The reunion programme has been suspended since the North's shelling of a South Korean border island in November 2010.

A reunion event had been scheduled for September last year, but North Korea cancelled at the last minute, citing "hostility" from the South.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye then called for the programme to be resumed around the Lunar New Year holiday that falls this weekend.

But the North rejected that offer, this time citing the planned South-US joint military exercises as the major hurdle.

The drills are held every year and are routinely condemned by the North as a rehearsal for invasion.

Pyongyang has made several demands that this year's exercises be called off, but Seoul insists they will go ahead.

Against this background, there are concerns that the North is just going through the motions on the reunion issue, and will eventually call off the event to protest against the upcoming drills.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the 1950-53 conflict which sealed the peninsula's division.

Most have died without seeing their relatives again, with personal cross-border contact, including postal and phone communication, banned for decades.

About 71,000 people - most than half of them aged over 80 - are on the South's waiting list to participate in a reunion.

Only around 100 people on each side are selected for each event.

The reunion programme began in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.

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