|Yoo Hak-gi, 85, who has applied for a family reunion to find his siblings in the North, checks his application at the help center of the Korea National Red Cross on Friday. (Yonhap News)|
The Seoul government on Sunday stuck with Panmunjeom as the venue for the talks on separated family reunions, following North Korea’s acceptance of the South’s proposal to hold discussions on Friday.
The Unification Ministry also held off on a response to the North’s proposal to discuss the resumption of Mount Geumgang tours, in an apparent attempt to separate the issues of family reunions and the tour project suspended since 2008.
North Korea on Sunday accepted South Korea’s proposal for talks on Friday to arrange the first reunions of separated families in nearly three years around Korean Thanksgiving next month in another sign of a thaw in their relations.
In a statement issued by the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, Pyongyang said that it would discuss the issue of holding family reunions in Mount Geumgang on the occasion of the Chuseok holiday that falls on Sept. 19.
Carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, the statement also said video-linked reunions would occur in time for the anniversary of the Oct. 4 inter-Korean declaration signed in 2007 during a summit in Pyongyang between late former leaders Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il.
The communist state also proposed holding working-level talks over the resumption of long-stalled tours to the Mount Geumgang resort on Thursday.
Last week, Seoul’s Red Cross proposed a meeting with its North Korean counterpart this Friday at the Peace House on the South’s side of Panmunjeom to “consult on humanitarian issues such as family reunions around the Chuseok.
The North proposed holding Red Cross talks in Mount Geumgang to check facilities there for reunions.
Family reunions have not been held since October 2010 as inter-Korean ties plunged to one of their lowest ebbs due to a series of North Korean provocations including its artillery shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island in November 2010 that killed two marines and two civilians.
Seoul has recently focused on the humanitarian aspect of the separated families issue as many of them have died of old age. 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.
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
The Mount Geumgang tours have been suspended since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier there for allegedly trespassing into a restricted area in July 2008. Following the suspension of the tours to the mountain, tours to Gaeseong have also been suspended.
The North has repeatedly called for the resumption of the tours, but the South has maintained that tours will not resume until the North provides a clear explanation for the shooting and guarantees full-scale safety measures for tourists in the future.
The North is said to have raked in $1.5 million in 2006 and $2 million in 2007 through the Geumgang tour program. Under deepening international isolation stemming from its nuclear and missile program, Pyongyang has been in desperate need of outside financial sources.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)