Published : 2013-08-22 20:26
Updated : 2013-08-23 14:49
|This file photo taken on Nov. 5, 2010, shows North Korean women crying as they bid farewell to their South Korean relatives after inter-Korean temporary family reunions at Mount Geumgang resort. (Yonhap News)|
The two Koreas agreed Thursday to open talks on Friday in Panmunjeom to arrange the first reunions of separate families in nearly three years, further raising hopes for cross-border reconciliation.
Pyongyang accepted through the Panmunjeom communication channel the Aug. 16 offer by Seoul’s Red Cross to meet at the Peace House on the South side of the border village to set up the family gatherings around Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving that falls on Sept. 19 this year. The North initially wanted the consultations to take place on Mount Geumgang.
As for restarting tours to the mountain resort, the North suggested a dialogue be held there in late August or early September, rather than on Sept. 25 as proposed by the South.
“They said they would like to hold talks early so that they can resume the tours soon,” a Unification Ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“But separated families and Geumgang tours do not belong on the same order. Our approach is to deal with the two issues separately.”
The sides traded their respective lists of three delegates later in the day. Lee Deok-heang, a senior official at the South Korean Red Cross, will lead the negotiations with Park Yong-il, a central committee member of the North Korean Red Cross, the official said.
“Our aim is to have as many people as possible reunite with their families, as soon as possible,” he added.
Since 2000, the two Koreas have organized meetings for the families displaced by the 1950-53 Korean War, largely around major holidays.
The gatherings were last held in October 2010 and halted in the wake of the communist country’s attacks on a South Korean corvette and border island in the West Sea earlier that year.
Pyongyang on July 10 offered a new round of dialogue to resume family reunions and Geumgang tours, only to call it off after Seoul only accepted the more urgent reunions to focus on the then-ongoing negotiations over the Gaeseong industrial park.
In the Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, President Park Geun-hye suggested resuming family reunions and establishing a peace park inside the Demilitarized Zone.
But the venue emerged as a potential fault line as the North attempted to interlace the family meetings and the tour program.
The tours to the scenic mountain on the east coast were launched in 1998 but have been on hold since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July 2008 when she strolled into an off-limits area. Seoul has set a stringent fact-finding, a guarantee of tourist safety and assurances against a relapse as three preconditions for its resumption.
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.
By Shin Hyon-hee