The two Koreas are set to hold a Red Cross meeting on Friday to discuss a set of humanitarian issues, including holding a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, amid a thaw in inter-Korean relations.
The inter-Korean Red Cross talks will begin at around 10 a.m. at a hotel on Mount Kumgang on the North's scenic east coast, according to the unification ministry.
Earlier in the day, South Korea's four-member delegation led by Park Kyung-seo, head of the Korean Red Cross, left for the meeting venue using the eastern land route to the North. The North will also send a three-member delegation headed by Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.
High on the agenda is a reunion of families, which the leaders of the two countries agreed in April to hold on the occasion of the Aug. 15 Liberation Day.
"We will come back after having good consultations with the North on a set of humanitarian issues, in particular, on how to resolve the agony of 57,000 separated families," Park earlier told reporters.
If held, it would mark the first family reunion since October 2015.
South Korea has demanded a family reunion be held as soon as possible as many of those wishing to be reunited with their long lost families are aging.
Data showed that the registered number of South Koreans seeking to meet their loved ones in the North totaled 132,124 as of end-May, of which only about 57,000 remain alive. Some 86 percent of them are in their 70s and older.
A daunting challenge is to confirm whereabouts of the lost families in North Korea, an issue that requires close cooperation by North Korea.
According to a survey conducted by the unification ministry in 2016, 74.4 percent of separated families did not know if and where their loved ones are living in the North.
Another issue that could be brought up for discussion by North Korea might be a group of female restaurant workers who defected to the South from China in 2016. Their return to the North had been a major precondition for discussing holding a reunion of separated families.
South Korea has claimed that they all defected to the South voluntarily but the North has argued that they came here against their will.
Controversy flared up anew as a local TV network recently aired an interview with a male manager for the workers who said that he coerced the other employees to come with him to the South at the instruction of Seoul's spy agency.
Observers said that the two could also discuss granting humanitarian assistance to the North during the Red Cross meeting as the sense of rapprochement between the two Koreas is growing.
Last year, the Seoul government announced a plan to provide US$8 million worth of humanitarian assistance to the North through international aid agencies but the plan was put on the back burner amid escalating tensions caused by the North's nuclear and missile provocations.
The issue of the six South Korean people detained in North Korea, however, is unlikely to be touched upon this time as South Korea's chief delegate, Park, earlier said that he has no such plan for fear that such a sensitive matter could derail efforts to make headway in broader objectives. (yonhap)