President Park Geun-hye on Saturday proposed to Pyongyang holding reunions of separated families on a regular basis, stressing that there was not much time left for the elderly Koreans affected.
“The families, they don’t have much time. (The cross-border reunions) should no longer be rare occasions,” Park said during her speech to mark Independence Movement Day in Seoul.
Seoul is expected to suggest holding working-level Red Cross talks with Pyongyang to discuss Park’s proposal and other issues of mutual concern, after the South Korea-U.S. Key Resolve command post exercise ends on Thursday.
After the first reunions in more than three years ended last week, calls have further increased for the gatherings to take place regularly to give chances for the families involved, many in their 70s and 80s, to reunite.
According to government data, 129,264 people have been registered as having relatives in the North. Nearly 45 percent of them have passed away with an average of 4,000 people dying each year since 2004.
Apart from holding the reunions, Seoul also hopes to institute a system to ascertain whether relatives on each side are still alive and allow the divided families to exchange handwritten letters.
Skeptics say it still remains to be seen whether the North would accept Seoul’s proposal to regularly hold the reunions as Pyongyang believes its people’s increased contact with outsiders could pose a challenge to the regime’s hold on its dynastic ruling system.
Should Pyongyang accept Seoul’s suggestion to make the reunions regular events, it is likely to make a series of demands to address its economic issues including securing rice and fertilizers.
“From Seoul’s viewpoint, humanitarian issues include the separated families, South Korean prisoners of war and those kidnapped by North Korean agents,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“But for North Korea, it may want to secure Seoul’s provision of food, fertilizers and medicines. On top of the priority list will be fertilizer as after May, it would be late in terms of their farming procedures.”
Observers say Pyongyang could also link the issue of the separated families to other political and economic issues such as the cancellation of South Korea-U.S. regular military drills, resumption of the long-stalled tour program to Mount Geumgangsan and the lifting of Seoul’s ban on government-level inter-Korean economic exchanges.
Given that Park has recently shown her intention to improve bilateral trust, Seoul is expected to apply more flexibility in its handling of inter-Korean issues, analysts presumed.
During her speech on Saturday, Park also touched on the benefits of reunification, which she has repeatedly referred to it as an economic bonanza for South Korea and neighboring countries. She has also unveiled a plan to launch a preparatory committee for reunification.
“A unified peninsula would contribute to peace not only in Northeast Asia, but also in the entire world,” she said.
“The unified peninsula would also become the heart that links Eurasia and Northeast Asia, and countries in Northeast Asia would find a new chance for development through the peaceful, unified Korea.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)