A Red Cross official receives registrations from those who wish to reunite with their family members in North Korea at the Korean Red Cross headquarters in central Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
The two Koreas on Monday agreed to hold working-level talks on Wednesday to prepare for the first reunions of separated families in more than three years as early as later this month.
The Unification Ministry earlier in the day offered a preparatory meeting on Wednesday at the North side of the truce village of Panmunjeom shortly after Pyongyang offered a choice between Wednesday or Thursday “at the South’s convenience.”
“We welcome that the North has come forward to discuss the family reunion issue now,” ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told a news briefing.
“We hope that the reunion will take place as soon as possible through smooth consultations between the two Koreas.”
The North’s message came eight days after the ministry suggested a fresh round of reunions of families displaced by the 1950-53 Korean War from Feb. 17-22 at Mount Geumgangsan. It initially hoped to meet for the arrangements on Jan. 29.
As Pyongyang’s silence dragged on, concerns grew last week that the unpredictable regime might call off the event, as it did last September to the dismay of aging members of the separated families and the Park Geun-hye government.
About 100 families from each side are expected to reunite with their loved ones at the scenic mountain resort. It takes around two weeks to prepare the venue and other facilities for the gathering.
North Korea has been stepping up its peace offensive since leader Kim Jong-un urged the South to work to improve inter-Korean relations in his New Year address.
Seoul’s proposed time frame is 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 upcoming two-month-long Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises by South Korea and the U.S. during which cross-border tension generally escalates.
Since 1985, 18 face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings have taken place, involving more than 22,000 people from 4,380 families.
The project was suspended in the wake of the North’s sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery strike 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 separated families registered since 1988, according to ministry data. 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