South Korea on Monday formally proposed holding reunions of separated families on Feb. 17-22 at Mount Geumgangsan, welcoming the North’s belated acceptance of its earlier offer.
Seoul also suggested a working-level meeting between the two countries’ branches of the Red Cross on Wednesday for the event’s arrangement at the North side of the border village of Panmunjeom.
The message, delivered through a border telephone line, was a follow-up to Pyongyang’s offer on Friday of the first family gathering in more than three years. About 100 families from each side are forecast to reunite with their loved ones at the scenic mountain resort.
“We hope that North Korea will positively respond to our suggestion, and that this family reunion will go smoothly and boost momentum to inter-Korean relations,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told a news briefing.
North Korea has been ramping up its peace offensive since leader Kim Jong-un urged the South to work for “independent, democratic unification” and “come forward” to improve cross-border relations in his New Year address.
But the Kim regime initially spurned President Park Geun-hye’s proposal early this month, blaming South Korea-U.S. military drills, the cold spell and short preparation time.
The new time frame was apparently designed to avoid the Feb. 16 anniversary of the birth of late despot Kim Jong-il, for which Pyongyang will stage a large celebration, and the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises slated to run for about two months from late next month.
Cross-border tension shot to the highest point in years during last year’s drills as the North repeatedly threatened a nuclear war following its third atomic test, while the U.S. flew B-52 and B-2 bombers over the peninsula and mobilized a nuclear submarine.
Given the thawing mood, the allies are expected to refrain from utilizing such assets as strategic bombers and an aircraft carrier this time.
“The government came up with the date in consideration of the state of the venue at Mount Geumgangsan and the urgency of the separated families issue, but not such a thing as South Korea-U.S. military exercises,” Kim said.
Yet the much-anticipated event may not happen. In late September, Pyongyang called off planned family reunions after the two sides squabbled over accommodation and stalled tours to the mountain resort.
The divided states first held a reunion of families displaced by the 1950-53 Korean War in 1985.
Eighteen face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings have since taken place, involving more than 22,000 people from 4,380 families.
The program was suspended in the wake of the North’s sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery firing on a border island in the West Sea in 2010. Inter-Korean ties were further strained by a series of nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang.
As of end-2013, only 71,480 remain alive of the 129,264 South Korean members of the separated families registered since 1988, ministry data shows. Of the survivors, more than 11 percent are in their 90s, 42 percent in their 80s and 29 percent in their 70s.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)