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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Rival Koreas to hold talks this week on reunions of families separated by war

SEOUL, South Korea - The rival Koreas have agreed to hold talks Wednesday on arranging the first reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War in more than three years, officials said Monday.

North Korea agreed 10 days ago to restart the reunions and asked South Korea to pick the date. The South subsequently chose Feb. 17-22 and proposed that talks be held to discuss the details. But North Korea didn't respond for a week, drawing complaints from South Korean officials.

Breaking its weeklong silence, North Korea sent a message on Monday proposing that the preparatory talks take place either Wednesday or Thursday at a border village, and that South Korea could pick the date, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry and North Korean state media.

South Korea replied that it preferred Wednesday and North Korea agreed, according to the Unification Ministry, which is responsible for South Korean relations with the North. Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do said officials will try to arrange the reunions as soon as possible.

The reunion program is one of several co-operation projects between the divided Koreas that have been stalled amid tensions in recent years. The program is highly emotional because most applicants are in their 70s or older and want to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

Millions of Koreans have been separated since the Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war. The rivals are separated by a heavily fortified border, and ordinary citizens are barred from exchanging letters, phone calls or emails.

About 22,000 North and South Koreans have met briefly with long-lost relatives during past periods of detente, but reunions have not been held since late 2010 because of continuing tension. A month after the 2010 reunions, North Korea launched artillery at a South Korean front-line island, killing two civilians and two marines.

North Korea has recently toned down its bellicose rhetoric toward South Korea and made a series of conciliatory gestures. Last spring, it dramatically escalated tensions by issuing threats of nuclear war.

Analysts say the impoverished North needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.

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