President Park Geun-hye’s proposal to hold fresh reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, with her reserved stance on talks with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, appears to indicate the limited scope of options the South Korean leader has in handling inter-Korean ties.
In her New Year news conference Monday, Park hoped elderly members of separated families would be allowed to reunite around Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on Jan. 31. Shortly after Park made the proposal, Seoul’s Unification Ministry sent a message to Pyongyang suggesting the two sides hold a working-level meeting on Thursday at the truce village of Panmunjeom to discuss the resumption of family reunions.
In September last year, Pyongyang unilaterally canceled a scheduled reunion at the last minute, citing “unfavorable” cross-border developments. The North’s move was seen as an expression of its dissatisfaction with the South’s cautious attitude toward resuming a lucrative tourism project at Mount Geumgang on its eastern coast.
As many observers here note, it is likely Pyongyang will accept Park’s proposal, though it has yet to be seen whether the favorable response would signal the recalcitrant regime’s sincere intention to improve ties with Seoul and ease tensions over its nuclear weapons program. In his New Year message last week, the young North Korean ruler struck a conciliatory tone, calling for a “favorable climate” to improve inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang slammed Seoul on Sunday for its dismissal of Kim’s overture. The South Korean government earlier described the move as an “empty gesture,” urging the North to show sincerity in building trust between the two Koreas and make genuine efforts toward denuclearization.
Park’s proposal to resume family reunions was seen as part of Seoul’s efforts to maintain and enhance stability on the divided peninsula amid increasing uncertainties in Pyongyang following last month’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, the North Korean ruler’s uncle and mentor. Park has repeatedly called the North’s situation “grave,” warning that Pyongyang might resort to reckless provocations to cover up internal vulnerabilities.
Park didn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with Kim “if it is necessary for peace on the Korean Peninsula and preparations for unification,” but was quick to add that such talks would be realized only when substantial results could be ensured.
The president also tried to set out her vision of national reunification, saying it would be a “jackpot” for all Koreans and an opportunity for the whole nation to make a great leap forward. With next year marking 70 years since the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II, efforts should be strengthened to lay the groundwork for unification.
As she said, however, massive and substantial projects with Pyongyang, which would help pave the way for inter-Korean unification, would be made possible only when the North Korean nuclear problem is resolved. Improvement in inter-Korean ties, which may start with the resumption of family reunions and increased humanitarian aid to the North, would also be limited for as long as the nuclear issue remains stalled.
In this regard, Park’s administration needs to pay heed to the advice from some experts that it should go beyond repeating calls for Pyongyang’s sincere actions and take bolder and more sophisticated initiatives toward settling the nuclear standoff.