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Seoul offers military, family reunions talks with NK

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Published : 2017-07-17 18:07
Updated : 2017-07-17 18:07

South Korea on Monday proposed military talks with the North in its first formal overture under President Moon Jae-in, who has called for a halt in hostilities and revival of cross-border communication.

Seoul also offered a separate meeting between the two sides’ Red Cross officials to arrange a fresh round of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War on the Chuseok holiday on Oct. 4, which is also the 10th anniversary of an inter-Korean peace declaration. 

A separated family reunion applicant corrects his information at the headquarters of South Korea’s Red Cross in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk suggested the military talks take place Friday at Tongilgak on the North side of the truce village of Panmunjeom. The aim is to cease “all acts of hostility that heighten tension around the Military Demarcation Line” starting July 27, the 64th anniversary of the armistice.

“I ask the North to answer to our proposal by restoring the currently disconnected military hotline near the West Sea,” he said at a news conference. “We look forward to the North side’s positive response.”

Suh did not specify any intended agenda or the level of the delegation, simply saying the talks would be “comprehensive consultations.”

But among the likely items are propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts and the launch of leaflets slandering each other’s systems, which have often been a source of tension.

The invitation followed up Moon’s Berlin initiative unveiled on July 6, under which he floated the idea of not only the military talks and family reunions but a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “at any time and any place, under the right conditions.”

The Moon administration is apparently seeking to start by re-establishing idle communication channels through issues that appeal to Pyongyang, such as the propaganda broadcasts and flyers and then holding the family reunions, a more urgent matter to Seoul.

The North severed the West Sea hotline in protest against the Park Geun-hye government’s shutdown of the Kaesong factory park in February 2016. But three months later, Kim proposed military talks to defuse tension during the 7th Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, followed by an official gesture by the People’s Armed Forces through the channel. But the South brushed the suggestion off, demanding Pyongyang first take steps to denuclearize.

If the communist state agrees, it would be the first inter-Korean military contact since October 2014.

Yet even if it does, the prospects of the negotiations remain shaky given the gap in positions between the sides, observers say. Given the “comprehensive” nature of the talks, the headstrong regime may also bring up South Korea-US joint military drills, the dispatch of US strategic assets, the deployment of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense here, and other issues from which Seoul could not budge.

Or, even before the sides sit down across the table, they could spend days and weeks engaged in a heated war of nerves over the rank of each other’s chief negotiator and protocol, which have in the past resulted in the breakdown of talks.

The envisaged plan for family reunions faces its own daunting challenges.

Kim Sun-hyang, acting president of the South’s Red Cross, suggested a meeting with its northern counterpart on Aug. 1 at the Peace House, Panmunjom’s southern conference building. The three-member delegation will be headed by the organization’s secretary-general Kim Gunn-joong, she said, asking the North to reply via a cross-border Red Cross liaison.

The two Koreas last held family reunions in October 2015.

The relations, however, have only gone downhill since then, with Pyongyang continuing nuclear and missile provocations.

Last month, Kim Yong-chol, a senior official in the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea in charge of inter-Korean affairs demanded in an interview that Seoul return 13 defectors as a precondition for family reunions.

He singled out a group of 12 who fled while working at a North Korean restaurant in China last year, and Kim Ryon-hui, a defector who requested to go back to her homeland in 2015.

The 13 were “being detained by force in South Korea” and without their immediate comeback, “there can never be any kind of humanitarian cooperation,” Kim Yong-chol told the AFP in Pyongyang.

The regime has been persistently insisting on their repatriation, saying they were kidnapped by the South Korean spy agency.

Seoul has dismissed the claims, saying it has already verified the 12 waitresses’ intentions to stay here, and Kim Ryon-hui had already become a South Korean and therefore is mandated to secure government approval to visit the North, with the only possibility for a temporary stay.

“Today’s proposal was a step to ease tension and establish peace in the initial phase (of the new administration) while resolving the pressing matters like the separated families,” Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said at a separate news conference.

“There could be issues each side may raise, but we will settle our position in detail according to the North’s response,” he added, when asked on the North’s demand for the defectors’ return.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)