Benefits for both KoreasNorth Korea has kept up its conciliatory tone by suggesting the two Koreas resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War. The North’s Red Cross, which formally asked South Korea for rice and heavy equipment to help it recover from recent heavy floods, said it hoped that “humanitarian cooperation between the two countries could accelerate through the meetings of separated families,” according to the North’s state Korean Central News Agency.
This is nothing new. North Korea proposed a reunion of separated families last year when it sent high-profile delegates to the funeral of late former President Kim Dae-jung. This, after it irked South Korea and the international community with its second nuclear test in May.
In the wake of the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the North is again playing the reunion card in an effort to clear the air. The impoverished country has been relying solely on China amidst reinforced sanctions from the United States and South Korea following the sinking.
North Korea has often consented to family reunions to draw multiple concessions from South Korea. While agreeing to the reunions, the North extracts generous food aid from the South. It only proposes having reunions whenever it is pushed into a corner amid heightened tensions.
We are annoyed that this issue is so often exploited for political gain. But we cannot simply walk away. Meanwhile, the government is planning to demand that the sporadic reunions become permanent and a regular event. But it is unclear as to whether the reunions can bring about a breakthrough in cross-border relations.
Last week, President Lee Myung-bak said that the government plans to work toward normalizing ties with North Korea. He also suggested that the South Korean government and companies open a second inter-Korean industrial complex in the North that is similar to the one in Kaesong.
North Korea’s latest proposal for family reunions may also be in response to the change in the South’s attitude. But President Lee maintained that Pyongyang would first have to explain and apologize for the Cheonan attack. If North Korea is serious about mending ties beyond the ceremony of a family reunion, it must address the Cheonan incident.
At the same time, the two Koreas cannot afford to leave bilateral relations in a stalemate forever. The U.S. and China are pressing both South and North to resolve the tensions on the peninsula. And many South Koreans are calling for a change ahead of the G-20 Summit in Seoul in November. The two Koreas must display maturity and sincerity to work toward an outcome that is beneficial to both.