Family reunion talks bog down

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Family reunion talks bog down

Families separated by the Korean War who are looking forward to upcoming North-South family reunions should stop packing - North Korea is holding the reunions as hostage over the South’s refusal to send tourists to the Mount Kumgang resort.

During a second round of working-level talks in Kaesong between North and South Korea yesterday, North Korea said accommodations within the Mount Kumgang resort could be used for the reunions only if tourist groups start coming back to the mountain resort.

The Ministry of Unification said that the two sides failed to iron out the venue problem and would hold another round of talks on Oct. 1.

Tourism to Mount Kumgang has been suspended since the fatal shooting of a South Korean woman in July 2008. And in April, North Korea seized South Korean assets at the resort, including a family reunion center built by the South Korean government, as an angry response to Seoul’s refusal to resume cross-border tours.

The venue for the reunions has been a sticking point since the first meeting on the resumption of visitations on Sept. 17.

“Looking at North Korea’s attitude now, it’s worth considering whether they wanted the reunions in the first place or were aiming to put pressure on tour resumptions from the start,” said Ministry of Unification spokesman Chun Hae-sung yesterday.

In the first round of working-level talks between the two Koreas on Sept. 17, North Korea vaguely requested that the visits take place “within the Mount Kumgang tourism resort.”

The South Korean negotiating group requested in vain for clarification, which was supposed to come in the second round of talks yesterday.

Yesterday, South Korean negotiators asked if resort buildings that were not seized in April could be used.

“Everything in the resort is frozen or confiscated,” said the Unification Ministry spokesman, citing the North Korean party. “They can only be used once tourism is resumed.”

North Korea has been demanding the tours resume for two years because it is a source of revenue unaffected by international sanctions.

Before it was halted, tourism at the picturesque resort raked in roughly $30 million a year, an important source of income for a nation suffering from a collapsed economy, natural disasters and food shortages.

The South Korean government said it was not changing its stance on freezing the tours, though it admitted circumstances had become “difficult.”

“In order for tourism to be resumed, North Korea has to meet the three conditions, and there is the Cheonan situation to be considered,” said the Unification Ministry spokesman, referring to conditions that were set by the South Korean government after the 2008 fatal shooting and the Cheonan sinking in March.

To restart tourism, Seoul demands a thorough investigation into the shooting of the female tourist, preventive measures against additional fatal accidents and the guaranteeing of tourist security in the resort.

“The circumstances have reached the point where we cannot just suggest a different venue altogether,” said Chun. “The whole of inter-Korean relations hangs in the balance of this situation.”

By Christine Kim []
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