North proposes holiday reunions, South says O.K.

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North proposes holiday reunions, South says O.K.

A reunion of families divided by the inter-Korean border, an event the two Koreas hold on and off as a goodwill gesture, will likely occur next week after Seoul accepted a Pyongyang initiative.

In a counterproposal, Seoul is suggesting regularizing family reunions.

The humanitarian event is expected to help defuse inter-Korean tensions, but some suspect the North is trying to get more economic aid from the South.

A high-ranking government official said yesterday that the government decided to accept the proposal by Pyongyang to hold a reunion of separated families during the upcoming Chuseok holidays. The Chuseok holidays, Korea’s Thanksgiving, are celebrated Sept. 21 to 23.

The official said the government will send an official letter agreeing to the proposal this week via the Red Crosses of the two Koreas. Last Friday, the North’s Red Cross sent a letter to the South’s containing the proposal.

With the agreement, the official also said Seoul will propose the venues of the reunions as well as a concrete schedule of a meeting between working-level officials of the two Koreas to arrange the event.

Around 120,000 South Koreans have been registered as having families in the North since the three-year-long Korean War ended in 1953. Of them, around 40,000 died and 60,000 others are aged 70 or older. The Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not in a permanent peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

“If we assume that 1,000 [South Korean] people annually meet their separated families through reunions, it will take more than 60 years for all of them to meet their families,” said the official, explaining the reason for Seoul’s suggestion of regularizing the reunions.

If confirmed, the proposed reunion of separated family will be first of its kind in a year. The Koreas held the previous family reunion from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1, 2009, during the Chuseok holidays at Mount Kumgang. That was the first reunion since Lee Myung-bak took office as South Korean president. Sixteen family reunion events were held between 2000 and 2007.

The ruling Grand National Party welcomed Seoul’s suggestion.

“Regardless of the mood of inter-Korean relations, humanitarian reunions of separated families must go on,” said Bae Eun-hee, a GNP spokesperson, in a statement. “North Korea needs to actively respond to a suggestion from the government to regularize the family reunions and overcome the tragedies of inter-Korean history in any way possible.”

“If the suggestion by the North Red Cross about the reunion does not hide any political motive behind it, such as getting rice, heavy machinery and concrete,” said Park Sun-young, a spokesperson of the conservative opposition Liberty Forward Party, in a statement, “it should consider a reunion for South Korean POWs and kidnap victims as well.”

The suggestion is the latest indication that the North is hoping to mend inter-Korean relations, which have been sour since the current administration came to power in 2008.

Meanwhile, Seoul officials said most of the delegates to a rare Workers’ Party meeting scheduled for early September have arrived in Pyongyang. The meeting, taking place for the first time in 44 years, is to elect the top leadership of the party. Expectations have been high that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son will be anointed successor at the meeting.

By Moon Gwang-lip []

[뉴스분석] 제안, 역제안 … 긴박한 남북
인도적 문제를 앞세운 북한의 대남 평화 공세가 거세다. 10일에는 추석(9월 22일)을 계기로 금강산에서 남북 이산가족 상봉 행사를 벌이자는 제안을 해 왔다. 지난 4일 쌀을 포함한 대북 지원을 요구했고, 오징어 채낚기 어선 대승호와 선원 7명(한국인 4명, 중국인 3명)을 억류 한 달 만인 8일 풀어 줬다. 이런 제안과 움직임은 북한 조선적십자회가 대한적십자사에 통보하는 형태로 이뤄져 ‘인도주의’를 강조한 듯하다. 정부 당국자는 12일 “우리로서는 거부하기 어려운 이산가족 상봉 카드를 들고 나왔다는 점은 북한이 향후 인도적 사안을 내세워 남북 관계의 주도권을 쥐겠다는 의도”라고 말했다.

북측의 파상적 움직임은 일단 수해를 계기로 대북 지원을 확보하려는 유화 제스처로 볼 수 있다. 장재언 조선적십자회 중앙위원장이 “상봉을 계기로 북남 사이의 인도주의 협력사업이 활성화되기를 바란다”고 한 대목에서도 이는 드러난다. 이런 실리적 목적 외에 3월 말 발생한 천안함 사태로 인한 대북 압박·제재 국면을 탈피하려는 의도라는 분석도 있다. 수해 지원이나 이산가족 상봉을 계기로 한 남북 접촉을 통해 ‘천안함 가해자’에서 벗어나려 한다는 얘기다. 이산가족 상봉이나 대승호 선박 등의 조치로 대북 비난 여론을 무마시켜 나가려는 치밀한 전술이 읽힌다는 게 정부 당국자들의 진단이다.

천안함 사태에 대응한 정부의 5·24 대북 교류·지원 제한조치를 무력화하려는 의도도 깔려 있다는 게 전문가들의 지적이다. 정부 재산인 금강산 면회소에 대해 지난 4월 동결·몰수조치를 취하는 등 거칠게 나왔던 북한이 태도를 돌변, 이산가족 상봉을 제안한 것에 대해 정부가 뾰족한 대응책을 내놓지 못하는 데 대한 우려의 목소리도 나온다.
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