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Associated Press
A South Korean man uses a phone in front of a reception area where reunion applications for families separated by the Korean War are submitted, at the headquarters of Korean Red Cross in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

South Korea proposes family reunions next month

Associated Press
A South Korean woman, right, who was separated from her family during the Korean War, talks with an employee of the Red Cross at a reception area where reunion applications are submitted, at the headquarters of Korean Red Cross in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Associated Press
An elderly man watches a television program airing South Korean President Park Geun-hye's New Year's speech to the nation, at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Associated Press
A picture of the reunion of family members from North and South Korea in 2010 is displayed at the headquarters of the Korea Red Cross in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

– South Korea on Monday proposed that the rival Koreas hold reunions next month for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, the latest response from a wary Seoul to Pyongyang's recent charm offensive.

North Korea last week agreed to resume the reunions, which haven't happened in more than three years, and called on South Korea to set the date; Seoul is suggesting Feb. 17-22 at a North Korean mountain resort.

Despite hopes that the long-wished-for, highly emotional reunions will finally happen, there's much skepticism. Many in Seoul are suspicious of North Korea's recent outreach, which stands in sharp contrast to a two-month period last spring when Pyongyang followed its third nuclear test with threats of atomic war against Seoul and Washington.

Some analysts see Pyongyang's soft words as merely a way to win concessions and investment needed to prop up a struggling economy; they say the impoverished country has previously staged provocations when its calls for detente failed to produce aid. North Korea canceled planned reunions in September just before they were to begin. It has also conditioned its call for better ties with a demand that Seoul cancel upcoming annual war games with the United States, something South Korea has refused to do.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to boost his people's standard of living, even as he pursues a nuclear weapons and missile program that has been condemned by his neighbors and the United States.

South Korea has so far rejected the North's overall offer to take a series of steps to ease tensions, saying Pyongyang must take nuclear disarmament steps first.

North Korea's torrent of threatening rhetoric in March and April followed international condemnation of Pyongyang's third nuclear test, in February, and U.S.-South Korean annual war drills, which the North says are a preparation for invasion. Those drills – called routine by the allies – are set to resume again in coming weeks, and there has been worry in Seoul that another outburst from Pyongyang will follow.

North Korea has also detained an American for more than a year on charges that he committed crimes against the state.

Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border issues, said Monday that it has proposed working-level talks on Jan. 29 to discuss details about the reunions, according to a ministry statement.

North Korea didn't immediately respond to Seoul's proposals.

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 one of the world's most heavily fortified borders. Ordinary citizens are barred from exchanging letters, phone calls and emails.

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

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