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North Korea agrees to discuss family reunions with South

Pyongyang has agreed to talks with the South on the first family reunions in years. The program had been stalled in recent years amid tension between the divided Koreas.

North Korea sent a message proposing that the talks take place on February 5 or 6 in a border village, Seoul's Unification Ministry and Pyongyang's state media reported Monday. The message asked that the South choose between the proposed dates,

North Korea agreed to restart the reunions last month and asked the South to suggest the date. Seoul subsequently chose Feb. 17-22 and proposed working-level talks to discuss details about the reunions, but officials from North Korea didn't respond until Monday, drawing complaints from the South.

"We welcome that the North has finally come forward to discuss the reunion," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-Do told reporters.

"Given the urgency of the matter, we will make preparations to hold the reunion as soon as possible," Kim said.

South Korea has suggested February 5 for the talks, according to the Unification Ministry.

Clock is ticking

The 1950-53 Korean War separated millions of family members and cemented their division with a border that gave the peninsula an official North and South. The absence of postal and phone communication capabilities mean that most separated families have had no contact whatsoever with each other over the past six decades.

The highly emotional program receives most of its applications from people 70 or older who want one more chance to see long-lost relatives before they die.

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

The last reunions were held in 2010. An event for about 100 people scheduled for last September was called off at the last minute by North Korea, which cited Southern "hostility."

Pyongyang has recently toned down its typical rhetoric against Seoul and made a series of conciliatory gestures.

North Korea dramatically raised tensions last Spring by issuing repeated threats to launch a nuclear war. Analysts say the impoverished North needs improved ties with South Korea to attract foreign investment and aid.

mkg/ccp (AFP, dpa, AP)

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