Koreas to go ahead with reunions

South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images - Kim Kyou-Hyun, right, the head of South Korea's delegation, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart, Won Tong-Yon, before their meeting Feb. 14 in Panmunjom, South Korea.

SEOUL — North and South Korea said Friday that they will go ahead with planned reunions for families separated since the Korean War, an agreement that comes in spite of Pyongyang’s protests over “hostile” South Korea-United States military drills.

Following a high-level meeting at a truce village along the demilitarized border, the North and South issued a rare joint statement in which they committed to the reunions and pledged to “refrain from slandering each other.”

Rescue helicopters fly over a sinking South Korean passenger ferry that was carrying more than 450 passengers, mostly high school students, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, off South Korea's southern coast. Hundreds of people are missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

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Though the agreement had little additional substance, it marks a step toward civility following a particularly testy year of nuclear threats. It also suggests a softening of the North’s stance. Only two days earlier, North Korea had demanded that South Korea delay the drills, which are scheduled to begin Feb. 24, coinciding with the Feb. 20-25 reunions.

South Korean government officials describe the reunions, which haven’t been held since October 2010, as an urgent humanitarian program, pairing up long-lost relatives who haven’t seen one another in six decades. Most of those involved in the reunions are in their 70s and 80s. Those in the South have almost no means to communicate with those north of the border, as they are barred from making phone calls or sending mail.

Though Seoul and Pyongyang set the reunion dates earlier this month, elderly family members in the South were worried that the event would fall through. A North Korean military body, the National Defense Commission, had said that dialogue and war exercises “cannot go hand-in-hand.”

The U.S.-South Korean military drills are an annual event, but the North denounces them as a precursor to invasion. Relations between the two Koreas often dive this time of year.

Tensions in 2013 were particularly sharp, as the North began work to restart a small nuclear reactor and temporarily pulled its workers from an industrial park operated jointly with the South.

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