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Birthday draws friendly gesture from N. Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il turned 56 today amid signs that his reclusive communist country may try to defrost its icy relations with archrival South Korea.

Warming up to South Korea, with which the North is technically in a state of war, could ease strains between Pyongyang and the rest of the world, especially the United States and Japan.In a surprise, apparently conciliatory gesture, North Korea said Sunday it will launch a program to locate people separated from their families by the 1950-53 Korean War.

In a broadcast monitored in Seoul, Pyongyang's official Central Radio said the government would collect petitions from North Koreans who want to track down long-lost family members, most of them believed to be living in South Korea.

Central Radio said the campaign will start next month.

In communism's first hereditary power succession, Kim Jong Il took over North Korea from his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 at age 82. Since then, his birthday has been celebrated as a "great national holiday."