Reunions before tourismNorth Korea has accepted South Korea’s proposal to hold working-level Red Cross talks aimed at renewing reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korea War. President Park Geun-hye proposed the two Koreas hold reunions around the Chuseok holiday next month. Pyongyang replied positively two days after our Ministry of Unification suggested the working-level talks. But in addition, Pyongyang proposed that the two Koreas discuss resuming the Mount Kumgang tourism program.
The reunions of separated families, however, are more urgent than Mount Kumgang tourism. Reunions are a humanitarian issue that should be free of political motives, but they have not been held for three years due to a deadlock in inter-Korean relations. About 73,000 South Koreans have applied to meet their family members living in the North, and more than half of those applicants are over the age of 80. South and North Korea must be fully aware of their anxiety and desperation. There is not much time left before the Sept. 19 holiday to arrange for meetings. Authorities need to come to an agreement for working-level talks quickly.
President Park has emphasized the “normalization of what’s not normal” in inter-Korean relations. Seoul agreed to reopen the industrial park in Kaesong in hopes of developing and upgrading it to global standards. Seoul also should strive to normalize inter-Korean reunions. It must come up with various ideas to make reunions lasting and uninterrupted from political factors.
We welcome Pyongyang’s idea of arranging video conferences for separated families separately from physical meetings. One-time reunions at a Mount Kumgang venue are less meaningful. What would be more helpful would be for families to have continual access to satellite conference stations in Red Cross centers in Seoul and elsewhere.
Seoul wants working-level talks to take place in Panmunjom, while Pyongyang proposes Mount Kumgang. The North also wants to hold talks to resume Mount Kumgang tourism the day before the Red Cross meetings. Pyongyang said it has specific terms to ensure the safety of South Korean tourists and protect the assets in the Mount Kumgang tour site. It appears Pyongyang may be more interested in resuming tourism projects than reunions.
If the two Koreas back down a bit, as they did with Kaesong, they will be able to address differences over the Mount Kumgang tour project. But the tourism program is connected to sanctions against North Korea following its deadly attack on our Cheonan warship in 2010, so it’s better for both Koreas to concentrate first on resuming reunions and then move on to the full resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang project. The inter-Korean relationship would then, finally, be on a smooth path, activating the so-called trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula, as envisioned by President Park.