North Korea on Friday called on Seoul to lift its bilateral sanctions if it hopes to hold dialogue, arrange a reunion of separated families and restart other exchanges.
The demand by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles cross-border affairs, came after Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae proposed at the end of last year a fresh round of high-level talks to discuss the family reunion and other issues of mutual concern.
Along with Seoul-Washington joint military drills and anti-Pyongyang leaflets, the sanctions are deemed by the regime as a major sticking point in inter-Korean ties. The measures were levied on May 24, 2010, in response to North Korea’s attacks months earlier on a Southern corvette and a border island.
“The solemn reality is that without resolving the issue of the May 24 measures, no dialogue, contact or exchange is possible between the two Koreas,” the committee said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“If the South is truly interested in humanitarian matters, it ought to remove the bans it put in place with the intention of inciting confrontation, rather than pay lip service to the separated families issue.”
Seoul has been demanding an official apology as a prerequisite for any relaxing of the measures, which bar cross-border trade, investment, travel and other exchanges.
While upholding the principle, it appears to have somewhat softened its line recently, displaying its willingness to “put any items on the agenda” including the sanctions and stalled tours to a North Korean mountain resort.
“North Korea seems to be piling pressure on us to shift our position in a way that is more favorable to them by putting forward preconditions that are difficult for us to accept,” Unification Ministry spokesperson Lim Byeong-cheol told reporters early in the day.
In Davos, President Park Geun-hye pledged to “patiently” pursue dialogue and beef up people-to-people exchanges and other cooperation with the North as Seoul seeks to reinvigorate its efforts to prepare for reunification.
She pinned high hopes on the potential of an integrated Korea, which she said would bring fresh vigor to not just the economy of the peninsula but also Northeast Asia, Eurasia and the world.
The message was delivered at a “Korea Night” reception hosted by the Federation of Korean Industries ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Some 400 policymakers, business executives and politicians took part in the one-day event, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
“I yearn for the day when South and North Korea are reunited. Then the Korean Peninsula can go from being a cockpit of geopolitical conflict to a gateway to peace and development in Northeast Asia,” Park said.
As 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation and division, South Korea will work to spur progress in its ambitious projects, from “trustpolitik” to the Eurasia Initiative, she said.
“Seoul will patiently seek dialogue and cooperation with the North. We will steadily prepare for unification,” the president said. “By doing so, we will seek to make the era of unification not some distant dream but a concrete reality.”
In his own address, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the peninsula had been paying an unjustifiably high price for the 70-year division, citing the agony of separated families, the abysmal human rights record in the North, unabated tension and instability stemming from the recalcitrant neighbor’s nuclear and missile programs.
While calling for Pyongyang to do away with its atomic ambitions, Seoul’s top diplomat stressed the need to build a rapprochement “step by step” by gradually cultivating dialogue and cooperation.
“Denuclearization is not a precondition, but we cannot talk about peaceful unification or durable peace without resolving this,” Yun said, vowing to establish a virtuous cycle of better inter-Korean ties and disarmament.
“If history is any reminder for us, unification will come in an unexpected manner and moment rather than in a predicted fashion. That is why we are laying the solid groundwork for unification.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)