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South Korea officials cross into North ahead of family reunion

The advance teams from South Korea include 14 Red Cross officials and 11 maintenance worker tasked with putting the finishing touches on preparations for the meeting. 

SEOUL: South Korea sent advance teams into North Korea on Thursday (Oct 15) ahead of next week's rare reunion for families separated by the Korean War - a hugely emotional event that walks an unsteady diplomatic tightrope.

The Oct 20 to 26 reunion in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort is only the second in five years and, ever since it was agreed in August, has been dogged by concerns that Pyongyang might find cause to cancel.

The advance teams included 14 Red Cross officials and 11 maintenance workers who were tasked with putting the finishing touches on preparations for the meeting, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

"Some of them will stay in the venue until the beginning of the reunion to coordinate logistical matters for the event and other details," a ministry spokeswoman told AFP.

Next week's event is the result of an agreement the two Koreas reached in August to de-escalate tensions that had pushed them to the brink of armed conflict.

Pyongyang has threatened to cancel the reunion several times since then, taking issue with Seoul's criticism of its nuclear weapons programme and human rights record. Millions of people were separated during the 1950-53 Korean conflict that sealed the division between the two countries.

Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned. About 66,000 South Koreans - many of them in their 80s and 90s - are on the waiting list for an eventual reunion, but only a very limited number can be chosen each time.

The upcoming reunion will allow about 100 people from each side to meet their relatives, and the oldest participants are two 98-year-old South Korean men who have daughter and a son each in the North.

The Mount Kumgang resort - developed by South Korea's giant Hyundai Group - was once a symbol of inter-Korea reconciliation, hosting thousands of South Korean tourists allowed to travel under the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement pioneered by then president Kim Dae-Jung in the late 1990s.

Seoul halted the tours in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed after straying into a military area.