The two Koreas agreed, as result of their Red Cross talks held Friday, to hold the long-stalled reunion of the Korean War-separated families next month, marking the first of such case since October 2015.
The event will be held from Aug. 20-26 at Mt. Kumgang on the North's east coast, with 100 members of families attending from each side, according to officials.
"The South and the North agreed to hold a reunion of separated families at Mount Kumgang, marking the Aug. 15 Liberation Day," the joint statement said.
After both governments exchange the list of potential subjects by July 3 and make the survival confirmation by month-end, the final list of participants will be exchanged on Aug. 4, according to the statement.
While both Koreas jointly work on repairing the long-neglected reunion center, Seoul’s government will also dispatch an inspection team to review the facilities, starting June 27.
“The South and the North will continue to have working-level contact with the Red Cross and discuss humanitarian issues including the family reunion issue,” the statement read.
The humanitarian meeting came as follow-up procedures to the Panmunjeom Declaration reached by the two Koreas' leaders at their historic April 27 summit. The summit declaration, calling for an establishment of a permanent peace regime on the peninsula, stated that a reunion be resumed on the occasion of the August national holiday.
The two Koreas hold Red Cross talks on Friday at the Kumgangsan resort in North Korea. Park Kyung-seo (left), head of the Korean Red Cross headed the South Korean delegation, while Pak Yong-il (right), vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (second from left), led the North Korean team. (JointPress Corps)
The talks kicked-off around 10 a.m. at a hotel on the North’s scenic eastern slopes of Kumgangsan, according to the Ministry of Unification.
South Korea’s four-member delegation was led by Park Kyung-seo, head of the Korean Red Cross. The North sent a three-member delegation headed by Pak Yong-il, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.
The morning session of the meeting, attended by all delegates, lasted 45 minutes, according to pool reports. It was soon followed by an hourlong private meeting between the head delegates. More sessions were scheduled throughout the afternoon.
Following the end of the morning session, a Unification Ministry official told a group of reporters that both sides revealed their respective stances toward the reunion event including the timing, size, measures, and repair of venues. The meeting room jointly built in 2008 to be used for reunion events is believed to have been abandoned since the event was halted in October 2015.
At the start of the meeting, Pak, the North’s chief delegate, highlighted the current mood of detente on the peninsula.
“Following the June 15 joint statement and the Panmunjeom Declaration, we have returned to a precious place where we can have a chance to care for the wounds and the predicament in our people’s mind, and explore ways to seek reconciliation and unity,” he said, referring to the agreement reached at the first inter-Korean summit held on June 15, 2000.
“It is in and of itself meaningful in that we have come together on our famous mountain to hold Red Cross talks and discuss the reunion of people torn from their families and relatives,” he added.
Park, the South’s chief delegate, called for each side to work together to make the meeting a success by holding the talks “from a humanitarian perspective.”
Ahead of the meeting, Seoul reiterated that resolving issues surrounding the reunion of separated families would be a top agenda item. It has been calling for a swift resumption of the meeting, citing the old age of the family members.
Government data showed that the registered number of South Koreans seeking to meet their loved ones in the North totaled 132,124 as of end-May, among whom only about 57,000 remain alive. Some 86 percent of them are in their 70s or older.
Confirming the whereabouts of the separated families in North Korea was a key issue that was expected to be raised at the meeting.
According to a survey conducted by the Unification Ministry in 2016, 74.4 percent of separated families were unaware of the whereabouts of their family members in the North.
However, skeptics cast doubt on whether the two Koreas will able to draw up a sustainable system for the separated family members.
“It will be difficult for the North to locate the family members, who are now very old or deceased, with their current system and lack of technology,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Koh added that it was known that North Korea fed malnourished members of the separated families to make them look more “presentable” at the reunions.
Sensitive issues, such as the mass defection of 12 female restaurant workers to South Korea from China in 2016, were expected to be addressed as well.
The North claims the women were kidnapped by South Korean officials, while the South maintains that they all defected of their own volition.
Controversy flared up anew as a local TV network recently aired an interview with a male manager for the workers, who said that he coerced the other employees to come with him to the South at the instruction of Seoul’s spy agency.
Reinstituting stalled humanitarian assistance was also expected to be raised at the talks.
Last year, Seoul announced a North Korean humanitarian assistance project worth $8 million, but the plan has floundered amid escalating tensions caused by the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.
The issue of the six South Korean citizens detained in North Korea, however, is unlikely to be discussed this time as South Korea’s chief delegate Park earlier said that he had no such plan out of concern that such a sensitive matter could derail efforts to make headway on broader objectives.
By Jung Min-kyung & Joint Press Corps (firstname.lastname@example.org)