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Inter-Korean tensions cast clouds over family reunions

Inter-Korean tensions are building amid the South’s moves to enact a North Korea human rights act and its civic groups’ campaign to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets, triggering concerns over the prospect of the reunions of families divided by the border.

Pyongyang’s preparations for what it calls a satellite launch have also added to concerns that a series of setbacks could negatively affect the bilateral efforts to hold the reunions from Oct. 20-26 at Mount Geumgangsan.

The communist regime has indicated that the human rights act and anti-North Korea leaflets could dampen the reconciliatory mood that emerged after the breakthrough agreement on Aug. 25 to defuse cross-border tensions.

The North’s Red Cross said Wednesday that the human rights act would be a “direct affront” to the efforts to “relieve the separated families of their pains and (emotional) sufferings.”

“It is a brazen provocation that the South’s ruling and opposition parties are manipulating the human rights legislation. It is the provocation that would shift the reconciliatory trend into a confrontational one,” it said in a statement.

The South’s ruling Saenuri Party and main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy have been discussing the enactment of the North Korea Human Rights Act, which has long been pending at the National Assembly amid partisan differences.

Stressing the importance of the need to address Pyongyang’s woeful human rights records, Seoul’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo recently said the differences over the act between the rival parties have been narrowed.

The South’s left-wing politicians have long argued that the human rights act would provoke the North, damage the already strained bilateral relations and deepen ideological division within the South. But conservatives have claimed that the act should be quickly enacted to pressure the North to uphold the universal value of human rights.

Pyongyang has responded sensitively to the external criticism of its human rights as the issue could pose a threat to its dictatorial ruling system, observers say.

In the past, the North has unilaterally canceled bilateral plans to hold reunions of separated families amid cross-border tensions.

The two sides planned to hold the reunions in September 2013, but the North unilaterally canceled it amid the friction over the issue of resuming the stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan. The latest reunions were held in February 2014 after grueling high-level talks.

The North has also taken issue with a campaign by South Korean civic groups to float balloons carrying leaflets criticizing North Korea’s autocratic leadership.

On Tuesday, some 30 members of a civic group launched 59 balloons carrying 900,000 leaflets in the South Korean border city of Paju, north of Seoul.

In response, Uriminjokkiri, a propaganda website run by the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, said in a commentary that the leaflets are increasing cross-border animosities that could undermine the efforts to hold the family reunions.

The North has continued to demand that the South stop the civic groups from sending the leaflets. But the South has argued that it cannot block civil activities in line with the Constitution that ensures citizens’ freedom of expression.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)







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