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Seoul proposes North Korea talks on family reunions

Seoul on Wednesday proposed working-level talks with Pyongyang on March 12 to discuss ways to regularly hold reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

The Unification Ministry said it suggested through a border telephone line that the two sides’ Red Cross officials meet at the Southern side of the truce village of Panmunjeom to confer on “fundamental measures” to resolve the separated families issue.

The move was a follow-up to President Park Geun-hye’s proposal for regular family gatherings in her March 1 Independence Movement Day speech. She also instructed her top aides to engage in consultations with the North at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Last month, the two Koreas held their first family reunions in more than three years. About 100 families from each side reunited with their loved ones at Mount Geumgangsan in the North. 
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin speaks during a news briefing held in Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin speaks during a news briefing held in Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

“We hope the North will respond to our offer as soon as possible in light of the suffering and pain of the separated families on both sides,” ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin said at a news briefing.

But it is unclear whether Pyongyang will agree to the proposal given the escalating tension on the peninsula brought on by the communist state’s firing of rockets in an apparent show of force against ongoing South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.

The family reunions remain a highly sensitive issue for the reclusive North, which has been reluctant to expose its impoverished people to their relatives in the affluent, democratic South.The Kim Jong-un regime has also been silent about Seoul’s offer of disinfectants and vaccines to help it contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Some observers raised the possibility of Pyongyang making a counterproposal, such as discussing the resumption of tours to the scenic Mount Geumgansan resort or a higher-level dialogue.

Shortly before the last round of the family reunions, the two sides held their first high-level dialogue in seven years, led by Kim Kyou-hyun, vice chief of the South’s presidential National Security Office, and Won Dong-yon, deputy head of the United Front Department of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Since 1985, 19 face-to-face reunions and seven video-link meetings have taken place, involving nearly 23,000 people from some 4,580 families.

As of January, only 71,503 were still alive of the 129,287 South Korean members of separated families registered since 1988, according to ministry data. Of the survivors, around 11 percent are in their 90s, 42 percent in their 80s and 29 percent in their 70s.

By Shin Hyon-hee (