New hope for family reunionsDespite North Korea’s ever-belligerent rhetoric toward the South, the government has proposed that working-level talks between the two Koreas be held on the subject of reunions of families separated by the war. The proposal appears to be aimed at easing the tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, and it came after the United States accepted the North’s offer to hold preliminary talks for a Washington-Pyongyang meeting in Beijing on Feb. 23. Though it is not clear if the North will accept the South’s proposal, it is too early to conclude that Pyongyang will reject it.
Last year, North Korea declared that it would stop all contact with Washington because it claimed the U.S. government had stepped back from its earlier promise to provide 330,000 metric tons of rice to the North. The United States, however, denied the charge, saying North Korea had engaged in contact knowing that Washington was using the term “nutritional assistance” instead of the term “food aid” used by the North. Given the resumption of talks between Pyongyang and Washington after the North’s offer, we can anticipate a potential change in Pyongyang’s stance on reunions.
The Obama administration has consistently said that North Korea must first receive food from its southern brethren if it wants additional food aid. It is therefore possible that Seoul made its recent proposal on reunions expecting a change in Pyongyang’s hard-line position.
Reunions of separated families have served as a useful tool for mending fences while inter-Korean tensions were high. Previous administrations have provided the North with a massive amount of aid - mostly food or fertilizer - in exchange for reunions of separated families. The aid packages have undoubtedly contributed to the resumption of dialogue. Under the current administration, too, the government offered humanitarian aid to Pyongyang in 2009 and 2010, though the size of the package was smaller than during previous administrations. The government’s current proposal for another meeting of separated families will also be followed by aid depending on how the North responds. The government seems to be willing to give much more aid than in the past.
We hope that Pyongyang accepts this latest proposal as it knows it cannot maintain its hostility toward Seoul forever. When it comes to humanitarian issues, North Korea does not have to take other political matters into account. Talks could provide a precious opportunity to iron out misunderstandings between the two Koreas.