Seoul’s envisioned reunions of separated families appear to be hanging in the air as North Korea remains mum about its neighbor’s offer, frustrating South Korean officials and citizens longing to see their loved ones.
Seoul last Monday suggested the event be held on Feb. 17-22 at Mount Geumgangsan in line with Pyongyang’s earlier proposal, and working-level talks for its arrangement on Jan. 29 at the border village of Panmunjeom.
The North has since been unresponsive, however, effectively precluding the preparatory meeting.
Hopes had risen for the first family gathering in more than three years after the North requested an extension of the operation hours of the border telephone line from 4 p.m. on Tuesday, indicating it would deliver a message. But about two hours later its liaison official pulled out.
Yet Seoul officials were seen maintaining a wait-and-see approach, though the Panmunjeom channel was to be closed from Thursday to Sunday for the Lunar New Year holidays.
A Unification Ministry official said what was most important was Pyongyang’s position on the date for the event itself, as working-level consultations could take place either after the holidays or by phone.
After sending a reminder the following day, however, the South Korean government issued unusually stringent criticism of Pyongyang on Thursday for not only its lukewarm attitude toward the family reunion but also news reports that the North has been making progress in its nuclear program.
“North Korea should show sincerity if it truly cares about the agony of separated families. It should not propose anything unless it can deliver,” the ministry said in a statement.
It also called the development at the Yongbyon complex “deeply grave and regrettable,” urging the North to cease its nuclear program immediately and follow through on its international obligations and commitments on denuclearization.
The ministry was referring to a report by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee which said the North has reactivated a plutonium-producing reactor and expanded a uranium-enrichment facility, supporting assessments by Seoul officials and international think tanks.
Timewise, the two sides do not apparently have many options given the upcoming two-month-long military drills by South Korea and the U.S. during which cross-border tension generally escalates. It takes around two weeks to prepare the venue and other facilities for the gathering.
“We will watch the North Koreans’ reaction at least until early this week since we sent a message urging a swift response last week,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Despite the Kim Jong-un regime’s repeated overtures, inter-Korean relations are expected to take heat if it fails to deliver on its promise again.
Pyongyang’s last-minute cancellation of a planned family reunion last September infuriated the Park Geun-hye administration, which shot back with harsh condemnation, calling it “inhumane.”
“The South and North agreed to hold family reunions last year for the Chuseok holiday, but the North unilaterally annulled the agreement just four days ahead of the event. This must not happen again,” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told some 120 members of separated families at a memorial on Friday in the border city of Paju.
“North Korea should realize that no one acknowledges its sincerity if it calls off the people’s first demand while emphasizing ‘uriminzokkiri (among our people).’”
The communist state has been stepping up its peace offensive since the young leader called for inter-Korean reconciliation in his New Year address.
But Seoul dismissed it as an attempt to build rationale for a potential military provocation, warning Pyongyang against glossing over public opinion and calling for action toward denuclearization to demonstrate its sincerity.
The Rodong Sinmun, a Workers’ Party mouthpiece, simply echoed Kim’s “crucial proposals” Sunday, calling on the South to desert “unnecessary doubt and prejudice” and display a clear stance toward improved cross-border ties through action.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org