Reunions and reunificationIn her New Year’s press conference, President Park Geun-hye laid out plans to reinvent the economy and build the foundation for a unified Korean Peninsula. Referring to reunification as daebak - a popular Korean phrase for a windfall - she offered resolutions to the North Korean nuclear threat, increased recovery of ethnic homogeneity through humanitarian aid and exchanges with North Korea, and international cooperation to achieve a consensus on reunification. As a start to her second year in a five-year term, the president clarified the methods and goals for restoring the inter-Korean relationship and establishing lasting peace through the process of building trust.
As a first step toward mending ties with North Korea, she proposed reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War to take place during the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of the month. She was responding to a New Year’s message last week from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who mentioned the need to foster a “favorable climate” to improve ties.
Park’s offer was not mere conciliatory rhetoric. Within hours of her press conference, the government officially delivered a request to Pyongyang to initiate working-level talks toward a resumption of the family reunions.
In September, the two Koreas agreed to hold family reunions at Mount Kumgang in North Korea for the first time in three years, but Pyongyang called off the meetings at the last minute. Applicants for family reunions from South Korea totaled 129,000 as of November. Of those, about 57,000 have died. Among the survivors, 80 percent are in their 70s or older. Separated families have not seen each other since their last meeting in 2010. The anger and frustration they must endure due to the political standoff is unfathomable.
When proposing reunions, the president referred to them as the “first button” in mending inter-Korean ties. She was suggesting that Seoul would be ready to move on to other acts of engagement if Pyongyang cooperates in building mutual trust. She even reiterated that she could meet with the North Korean leader at any time. If Pyongyang agrees to resume the family reunions, there is a possibility that Seoul would ease tough sanctions the Lee Myung-bak government imposed on the North after the deadly attack on the Cheonan warship in March 2010.
Family reunions are a humanitarian cause, but they also could be a catalyst to improve the relationship between the two nations. Pyongyang should accept the proposal unconditionally.