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March 31, 2017

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S. Korea's Park seeks to reboot unification drive

SEOUL -- The 88-year-old North Korean man stretched his arms out the bus window to grasp the hands of his South Korean sister one final time before the end of rare reunions Tuesday between hundreds of family members separated for decades by war and politics.

"Brother, brother, my brother! How can I live without you?" the sister, Park Jong-soon, cried out from the parking lot at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, according to South Korean media pool reports.

Wiping away tears, Pak Jong Song shouted back: "Stay healthy! We'll see each other again if we're healthy."

That may be wishful thinking. The brief, painfully emotional reunions that ended Tuesday — the first since late 2010 — are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Neither country has ever allowed a second chance for people to meet their relatives across the border.

And while Seoul has long pushed for more reunions, analysts say North Korea is reluctant for fear that increasing their frequency will loosen its authoritarian control and give up a coveted bargaining chip.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed Tuesday to map out a fresh path to Korean reunification.

In a speech marking her first year in office, Park, who had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, said she was setting up a committee under her direct control to work out "systematic and constructive" plans for unifying the divided peninsula.

"For true peace ... it is necessary to make preparations for reunification that will open a new era on the peninsula," Park said in her address.

South Korea already has an entire ministry dedicated to unification, and it was unclear how the presidential committee would work differently from — or liaise with — the existing government body.

Reunification is enshrined as a national priority in both the South and North Korean constitutions, but pro-merger sentiment in the prosperous South — especially among younger people — has waned considerably in recent years.

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