South Korea on Friday proposed holding talks with the North next week to arrange the first reunions of separated families in nearly three years in September.
The offer delivered through the border communication channel was a follow-up to President Park Geun-hye’s Liberation Day address one day before, in which she suggested resuming family reunions and establishing a peace park inside the Demilitarized Zone.
On Wednesday, the two Koreas agreed to take steps to reactivate the factory complex in Gaeseong after a 133-day freeze, boosting the outlook for restarting stalled cross-border programs.
Seoul’s Red Cross proposed a meeting with its North Korean counterpart on Aug. 23 at the Peace House on the South’s side of Panmunjeom to “consult on humanitarian issues such as family reunions around Chuseok,” the Korean Thanksgiving that falls on Sept. 19 this year.
“We hope the North Korean side will positively respond to a Red Cross working-level contact to resolve the separated family issue which is a pure humanitarian matter,” the organization said in a statement.
Since 2000, the two countries have arranged meetings for the families displaced by the Korean War chiefly around major holidays.
The gatherings were last held in October 2010 and halted in the wake of the North’s attacks on a South Korean corvette and border island in the West Sea earlier that year.
Pyongyang offered a new consultation to resume family reunions and Geumgang tours on July 10 but it called it off after Seoul only accepted the more urgent reunions to focus on the then ongoing negotiations over the industrial park.
According to the Unification Ministry, only 72,882 of the 128,842 South Koreans registered since 1988 remain alive as of July 31, meaning that some 2,000 have died each year
Of the survivors, 9.3 percent were aged over 90, 40.5 percent were in their 80s, 30.6 percent in their 70s and 11.4 percent in their 60s.
With the recent breakthrough in Gaeseong, the inert inter-Korean projects appear to be coming to life again. Seoul has been calling the factory zone a “touchstone” for cross-border exchanges and collaboration.
Thirty officials from the complex management committee, KT Corp., Korea Electric Power Corp., Korea Water Resources Corp. and other agencies are scheduled to visit the North Korean border city Saturday for repair and maintenance of infrastructure.
Meanwhile, humanitarian assistance is also gathering steam, prompted in part by torrential rains that pummeled the peninsula for nearly 50 days until last week.
The South’s Red Cross said Friday it has decided to provide $100,000 for relief supplies to the North at the request of its headquarters, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Last month, the Park administration allowed five civic groups to send aid to the impoverished neighbor, worth 1.47 billion won in total. It also plans to give the U.N. Children’s Fund $6.04 million for programs to help North Korean infants and pregnant women.
The president has vowed to continue humanitarian support for the communist country regardless of political circumstances, a key component of her “trust-building process” policy.
“We cannot face away the reality that on the other side of the peninsula they are suffering from hunger and difficulty,” Park said in the Liberation Day speech.
North Korea reported at least 46 were killed or missing and nearly 50,000 became homeless across the country due to the unusually-long rainy spell, according to the Geneva-based IFRC, the world’s largest humanitarian organization.
A 2012 UNICEF survey showed that more than one in four North Korean children under five suffer from stunted growth and 4 percent of them are acutely malnourished.
Despite chronic food shortages and healthcare deprivation there, local and multinational relief groups have been having difficulty in recent years as funds dried up amid tension and sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The U.N. said Thursday it is in “urgent need” of $98 million to fund emergency aid for North Korea, where some 2.4 million people need regular food handouts.
“While the overall humanitarian situation has improved slightly over the last 12 months, the structural causes of people’s vulnerability persist,” U.N. Resident Coordinator Ghulam Isaczai said in a statement.
“External assistance continues to play a vital role in safeguarding the lives of millions whose food security, nutritional status and essential health needs would otherwise be seriously compromised.”
By Shin Hyon-hee