Seoul is expected to propose holding the reunions of separated families before the South Korea-U.S. annual military exercise begins in late February, to keep Pyongyang from canceling the event again on the pretext of the drills, officials said Sunday.
On Monday, the South plans to send to the North a fax message suggesting working-level consultations to work out details over the gatherings that have not been held since 2010 amid strained inter-Korean relations.
Pyongyang on Friday proposed the reunions at Mount Geumgangsan at Seoul’s convenience after the Lunar New Year holiday. Seoul officials welcomed the overture and discussed the right time and procedures for the reunions over the weekend.
Observers said that Seoul is likely to suggest holding the reunions for about a week right after the birthday of late North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il on Feb. 16. Mid-February will be the earliest time given that it would take several weeks to make the necessary preparations for the event including accommodation, they said.
“Given that it is urgent for the old people to meet their relatives in the North, we hope to hold the reunions before the military exercise. If we hold the event after the drills are over in mid- or late-March, it may appear to be too late,” a Seoul official said, declining to be named.
Although the North’s proposal for the cross-border reunions came amid its stepped-up peace offensive, it remains to be seen whether Pyongyang would accept Seoul’s offer to hold the gathering before the military drills.
President Park Geun-hye proposed holding the reunions earlier this month, hoping for fresh momentum to improve cross-border ties, but Pyongyang spurned the offer, citing the military drills among other reasons.
The South and the U.S. are to stage their joint Key Resolve command post exercise from late February for less than two weeks, and then the Foal Eagle field training exercise, which is to continue until around mid-April.
In recent weeks, Pyongyang has called on Seoul not to hold these drills, which it has routinely denounced as a “rehearsal for a nuclear war of invasion.” Seoul has maintained that the allied drills are defensive in nature and not aimed at attacking the North.
Meanwhile, President Park renewed her calls for the North to address its nuclear problem, stressing that the biggest obstacle to peninsular peace is Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism.
As the North continues to pose its nuclear and missile threats to the South and the entire region, Seoul has called Pyongyang’s recent peace overtures “deceptive and insincere.”
“The North has recently stepped up its peace offensive. Looking back on the past, there were provocations after the North’s peace gestures or their words and action were often contradictory,” Park said during her meeting with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the potential Republican presidential candidates at Cheong Wa Dae on Saturday.
“As shown in the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek (the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un), unpredictability of the North has further increased, which calls for closer security cooperation between Seoul and Washington.”
Seoul has recently focused on the humanitarian aspect of the issue of divided families as many of them have died of old age. Of the survivors, 9.3 percent were over 90, 40.5 percent were in their 80s and 30.6 percent in their 70s, according to recent government data.
About 72,880 of the 128,842 South Koreans registered since 1988 remain alive as of last July, meaning that some 2,000 have died each year.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)