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North Korea agrees to family reunions with the South, report says

By the CNN Staff
August 24, 2013 -- Updated 0052 GMT (0852 HKT)
The two countries recently agreed to reopen the Kaesong Industrial complex.
The two countries recently agreed to reopen the Kaesong Industrial complex.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The meetings would take place on September 19
  • They will take place at the Mount Kumgang resort

(CNN) -- In another clear sign that the severely strained relations between the two sides is slowly improving, North Korea has agreed to a proposal from the South that they resume the reunion of families separated in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The meetings would take place on September 19, during the Chuseok harvest festival, the North Korean news agency KCNA reported Sunday.

North Korea set off months of unsettling tensions with a long-range rocket launch in December followed by an underground nuclear test in February.

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The North's menacing rhetoric against the United States and South Korea hit a fever pitch in March and April after the U.N. Security Council voted in March to slap tougher sanctions on the regime and amid U.S.-South Korean military drills in the region.

The KCNA report said the North and the South, following an agreement to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Zone, will talk about the possibility of resuming cross-border tours at Mount Kumgang.

The Kaesong Industrial Zone, is an industrial complex the two nations share. It's been closed since April when the North pulled out its workers.

Mount Kumgang is a North Korean resort where a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in 2008 after allegedly walking into an off-limits area. The reunion will take place at the resort.

"The Kaesong Industrial Zone and the tours to Mt. Kumgang resort are valuable works common to the nation which should not be delayed as they are symbols of reconciliation, unity, reunification and prosperity," the KCNA report said.

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Bittersweet reunions

The tragedy of the divided families dates to the 1950-1953 Korean War, when the Cold War's division of the peninsula into two nations became permanent.

Amid fighting, millions of Koreans became refugees -- either fleeing the violence or fearing political reprisals from one side or the other. In winter of 1950, an estimated 650,000 refugees fled North Korea when United Nations forces retreated in the face of a surprise Chinese offensive.

There is no direct telephone or mail contact between the two Koreas, but some families in the South have managed to broker surreptitious voice and written contact with their relatives in the North in recent years, as North Korea's border with China has become more permeable and illegal cell phones have penetrated the insulated state.

The first family reunions took place following a landmark summit between the two Koreas in 2000. Since then, 17,100 people representing 3,500 families have been reunited on more than a 18 separate occasions.

The meetings are bittersweet; the chances of any of the divided family members meeting again are slim.

The last such reunion took place in 2010.

According to a report at the time, some 80,000 South Koreans registered with their government to join one of the infrequent reunions, but 40,000 people are believed to have passed away or given up hope, according to the South's Ministry of Unification. Numbers north of the Korean demilitarized zone are unknown.

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Kaesong closing

The shuttered Kaesong complex is one of the main casualties of the recent period of fiery threats and provocative moves by North Korea.

In early April, Kim Jong Un's regime began blocking South Koreans from entering the manufacturing complex, which sits on the North's side of the heavily fortified border and houses the operations of more than 120 South Korean companies.

Pyongyang then pulled out the more than 50,000 North Koreans who work in the zone's factories, saying it was temporarily suspending activity there.

The North Korean decision to halt operations surprised some observers, since Kaesong was considered an important source of hard currency for Kim Jong Un's regime.

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