Millions were separated across a border when fighting in the Korean War suddenly came to an end in 1953.

South Korea has proposed talks with North Korea to discuss how to help the thousands of families who were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, in its latest direct overture to Pyongyang since President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May.

Unification Minister Kwon Young-se extended the invitation to dialogue on the eve of Chuseok, one of the biggest holidays for Koreans on both sides of the border, describing the separation of families as part of a “painful reality”.

Seoul is willing to consider Pyongyang’s preferences in deciding the date, venue, agenda and format of the talks, he said.

“We hope that responsible officials of the two sides will meet in person as soon as possible for a candid discussion on humanitarian matters including the issue of separated families,” Kwon said.

Families were torn apart in 1953, when an armistice brought the fighting in the Korean War to an end but left North and South still technically at war and the peninsula split by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and heavily-fortified border.

All direct civilian exchanges, even a simple visit to a mother, brother, father or sister, were banned.

Decades later, most have no word on whether their loved ones are still alive.

Elderly North Koreans, their faces anguished and some crying, stretch out their hands to grasp those of their relatives in South Korea as they leave on a bus
Reunions have become increasingly emotional as family members have aged. Many are now in their 80s or older [File: Lee Su-kil/Korea Pool Photo via AP Photo]

The governments of the two Koreas have occasionally allowed brief reunions — the last one took place in North Korea in 2018 — but most separated families have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive.

It is unclear whether North Korea, which has already rejected Yoon’s proposal for aid in return for denuclearisation, will accept the latest offer.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said the chances were extremely low.

“Family reunions is a basic humanitarian issue but in reality it requires a substantial level of trust between both sides,” he told the Reuters news agency.

The latest proposal comes at a time of heightened tension between North and South, with Pyongyang carrying out an unprecedented number of missile tests this year, and also blaming Seoul for the outbreak of COVID-19 in its territory.

The issue of family reunions has become increasingly fraught as the decades have passed.

Many of those who were separated are now in their 80s and older and eager to reunite with their long-lost relatives before they die. About 400 people were passing away each month, Kwon said.



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