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Rival Koreas agree to hold reunions of war-divided families later this month

In this photo released by South Korean Unification Ministry, head of South Korean working-level delegation Lee Duk-haeng, right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Yong Il during their meeting at Tongilgak in the North Korean side of Panmunjom which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Red Cross delegates from the rival Koreas begun talks Wednesday on holding reunions of families separated since the Korean War ended in the early 1950s. (AP Photo/South Korean Unification Ministry)

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In this photo released by South Korean Unification Ministry, head of South Korean working-level delegation Lee Duk-haeng, right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Yong Il during their meeting at Tongilgak in the North Korean side of Panmunjom which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Red Cross delegates from the rival Koreas begun talks Wednesday on holding reunions of families separated since the Korean War ended in the early 1950s. (AP Photo/South Korean Unification Ministry)

SEOUL, South Korea - The rival Koreas agreed Wednesday to hold their first reunions of Korean War-divided families in more than three years later this month, another small step forward in easing tensions that comes despite North Korea's anger over upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Many had been skeptical in Seoul that the North would agree to a quick resumption of the dramatic reunions because of the annual military exercises that Seoul and Washington plan later this month. North Korea calls them a rehearsal for invasion, and used last year's drills to partly justify a torrent of threats and provocations that still clouds relations on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea also scrapped an earlier plan for reunions at the last minute in September after accusing South Korea of planning war drills and other hostile acts. It is again calling for the cancellation of the annual drills. Seoul and Washington insist they are purely defensive and have refused to call them off.

On Wednesday, however, in a meeting of Red Cross delegates at a border village, North Korea agreed to hold the reunions Feb. 20-25 at its scenic Diamond Mountain, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for cross-border affairs. North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency also confirmed the arrangements.

During Wednesday's talks, South Korea expressed regret over the cancellation of the previous reunions, and North Korea agreed there should be no such recurrence, a ministry statement said. Under the agreement, 100 elderly people from each country chosen last September will meet their relatives, the statement said.

The talks were arranged after North Korea last month approved a resumption of the reunion program, which has been stalled since late 2010. North Korea has recently ratcheted down its typical harsh rhetoric against South Korea and has made a series of conciliatory gestures in a sharp departure from a year ago, when it threatened Washington and Seoul with nuclear war and vowed to restart its production of fuel for nuclear weapons.

Analysts say impoverished North Korea needs improved ties with Seoul to help attract foreign investment and aid to improve living conditions and revive its sagging economy, and that it is unlikely to abruptly cancel this month's reunions.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. welcomed the decision by the two Koreas to set a date for family reunions. "We support improved inter-Korean relations," she said.

Analyst Hong Hyun-ik from South Korea's private Sejong Institute said North Korea is also likely to ask South Korea to resume a lucrative joint tourism project at Diamond Mountain and provide fertilizer and other humanitarian assistance.

Hong said the reunions are a symbolic move that could thaw tensions between the two Koreas, but relations could quickly sour again after the reunions end.

North Korea launched deadly artillery strikes on a front-line South Korean island in November 2010, only a few weeks after the last family reunions were held.

The two Koreas share one of the world's most heavily fortified borders and ordinary citizens are not allowed to exchange phone calls, letters and emails between the countries. The Korean Peninsula is still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

About 22,000 Koreans have had brief family reunions — 18,000 in person and the others by video — during periods of detente, but no one has had a second chance to meet their relatives.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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