SEOUL, Feb. 5 (UPI) —
South and North Korea agreed Wednesday to allow family reunions this month — the first in nearly four years.
The agreement could help ease tensions between the two countries since a cease-fire agreement in 1953 ended a three-year armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Yonhap news agency reported.
The reunions are set for Feb. 20-25 at North Korea’s scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, about 30 miles from the demarcation line on the east coast, according to the text of the agreement.
North Korea’s chief delegate Pak Yong Il said the agreement reached during the talks sponsored by the International Red Cross “is a very important starting point for improving North-South relations.”
The agreement was a compromise on a longer period for visits put forward by South Korea during the meeting of three officials from each side on the North Korean side of the so-called truce village of Panmunjom.
South Korea had proposed the families, involving about 100 people, meet for six days starting Feb. 17, Yonhap reported.
The officials also agreed to lodging facilities for the elderly among the families.
Earlier this week, Park Soo-jin, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, told Yonhap predicting the outcome of the meeting was difficult.
The Koreas have had 18 reunion events since agreeing to the process in 2000.
More than 21,700 family members have met, many for the first time, since being separated by the 155-mile demarcation line at the end of the 1950-53 conflict, Yonhap reported.
Some of the last visits in 2010 were three-day events organized with the help of the International Red Cross, which provided the facilities, including tents and food for families.
More than 430 South Koreans, from 97 families and ages 12 to 60 years, were bused across the demilitarized zone to Mount Kumgang for the last reunion.
Yonhap reported in August South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed reunions be restarted and the two Koreas establish a peace park in their heavily armed border region.
About 72,000 South Koreans, nearly half of them more than 80 years old, are on a waiting list for a family reunion — often considered a barometer of relations between the two Koreas, the BBC reported.
The two countries remain technically at war since the cease-fire divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel.
Tensions between the two Koreas ebb and flow but have been high especially since 2010, the year of the last reunions.
In that year, South Korea blamed North Korea for sinking of the 1,200-ton naval corvette Cheonan after an explosion from a suspected torpedo ripped the vessel in half. It sank about 1 mile southwest of Baeknyeong Island near the border with North Korea.
North Korea consistently denies it had anything to do with the sinking.
Tensions rose further in 2010 after North Korea unexpectedly shelled the South Korean Island of Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians, as well as damaging houses and military buildings.
North Korea has been testing nuclear-capable rockets, despite international and U.N. concerns about the program’s potential to destabilize peace in the region.
North Korea was sharply critical of this year’s annual Foal Eagle joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea.
Foal Eagle started March 1, several days after North Korea’s third nuclear test, and ran for two months. It included air, ground and naval exercises by about 10,000 military personnel from both countries.
North Korea threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes during the exercise, as nuclear-capable U.S. stealth bombers flew practice runs over the peninsula, the BBC reported.
But last month, North Korea started urging an end to the war of words. South Korean officials reacted cautiously to the overture, the BBC reported.