South Korea has proposed regular reunions of families separated by the Korean War during rare meetings between officials from the two Koreas held this week amid signs of easing tension on the peninsula, a spokesman said Thursday.
The three days of talks, which opened at North Korea's Diamond Mountain resort on Wednesday, come as the communist regime adopts a more conciliatory stance toward South Korea and the U.S. after months of animosity over its nuclear and missile programs.
Earlier this month, the North said it would restart some joint projects including the meetings of separated families that have been stalled since the inauguration of a conservative government in South Korea about 18 months ago. Seoul officials said they considered the moves "positive" but that government-level talks were necessary before implementing them.
On the first day of talks, officials expressed hope that the meeting would help improve inter-Korean relations, though they were still at odds over the timing of the reunion, according to South Korean media pool reports.
Seoul wants them to be held in two stages in late September and early October, while the North demanded that both stages be held in early October, close to the Chuseok autumn harvest holiday, the reports said.
Chuseok, which falls on Oct. 3, is a major holiday for both Koreas, equivalent to Thanksgiving in the United States.
South Korean officials also proposed that the two Koreas hold more family reunions on a regular-basis and allow divided families to confirm whether their long-lost kin are still alive in a "full-fledged manner," according to Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung. He said the North now wants to hold a one-time reunion on Chuseok.
Millions of families remain separated following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two countries technically at war. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.
A landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000 paved the way for about 20,000 Koreans to hold short reunions with relatives. The reunions were held annually but were suspended as North Korea cut off most ties in protest of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's hard-line policy toward Pyongyang.
Media reports said the differences of opinion between the two Koreas "were not big."
"I think we can return home with a good achievement," one unidentified South Korean delegate was quoted as saying by South Korean journalists accredited to cover the meetings.
A pro-Pyongyang newspaper based in Japan reported the North Korean delegates were "actively" engaging in the talks and told their South Korean counterparts on Wednesday that the resumption of family reunions would serve as a "new chance for improving North-South Korean relations."
The Choson Sinbo, considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime, said Thursday the two sides were "in a phase of breaking the impasse in their ties due to the top leader's determination," apparently referring to the North's absolute leader, Kim Jong Il.
The reunion talks are the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures by North Korea toward Seoul and Washington that began early this month when former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and met with North Korean leader Kim, who freed two American journalists detained in the North.
A subsequent meeting between the chief of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai and Kim led to the release of a South Korean detainee, and a provisional agreement for the two Koreas to resume the family reunions. A government-to-government deal will still be required for the reunions to take place.
In other conciliatory moves, the North has agreed to lift restrictions on border crossings with the South and pledged to resume suspended inter-Korean projects in tourism and industry. And last week, a North Korean delegation traveled to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, an architect of the "Sunshine Policy," which improved relations with the North.
Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.