Punting on reunions

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Punting on reunions

Our government appears to be negative about the idea of having a family reunion around the Chuseok for families separated during the Korean War (1950-53). An official at the Ministry of Unification said yesterday that the government “has no plan to hold the reunion meeting before or after the holiday this year,” adding that it was not appropriate for the South to be the party to propose such a reunion in the current situation.

The unification ministry was responding to remarks by the ruling Grand National Party Chairman Hong Joon-pyo, who urged South and North Korean authorities to cooperate on the humanitarian issue in a radio address yesterday.

The Ministry of Unification says that it could consider the idea more positively if North Korea proposed it first, and that it cannot make such a proposal ahead of the North. Simply put, the ministry would accept a proposal by the North rather than take any initiative on the issue, which can be seen as a dereliction of duty. The ministry cannot avoid the pertinent criticism that it is basically abdicating its prime responsibilities using the excuse of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. It seems to have forgotten its very raison d’etre.

The government’s statistics say that 128,585 citizens have applied to attend reunions with their lost families. Among them, 47,907 - 37.2 percent of the total - are dead, and 43.6 percent of the remaining 80,678 are over the age of 80. Not much time is left for them to enjoy seeing their relatives. Dismissing such desperate desires to see their families on political grounds is tantamount to an insult to humanity.

Even the United States is pursuing the idea of reunions for separated families living in the U.S. It doesn’t make sense for us to remain bystanders in such a situation. Our humanitarian aid to flood-hit North Korea led to reunion events in Pyongyang during the Chuseok holidays last year despite the Cheonan incident. The government has already secured the budget for flood relief for North this year too, even though it falls significantly short of the North’s expectation of “large-scale” aid.

Reunions of separated families are humanitarian events. The Lee Myung-bak administration should not approach this issue from a political perspective or deal with reunions as part of an ongoing quid pro quo. The government must voluntarily propose the reunions instead of waiting for Pyongyang’s offer. Less than a month is left until Chuseok. The clock is ticking.

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