Building trust out of reunionsThe long-awaited reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War are expected to resume after a three year and four month hiatus. At a working-level meeting between the South and North Korean Red Crosses yesterday, both sides agreed to hold the reunions at the Mount Kumgang resort from Feb. 20 to 25. Though the dates are three days later than South Korea’s original proposal, they don’t overlap with the period of the annual Korea-U.S. Key Resolve military drills scheduled for the end of February. North Korea also accepted our proposal for lodgings for the separated families - the Mount Kumgang Hotel and Oekumgang Hotel - allaying concerns about the North’s possible opposition.
Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to hold reunions last September too, but the meetings weren’t allowed to take place after North Korea unilaterally canceled them four days before the scheduled date. It is too early to know if this reunion schedule will actually go ahead. Yet the possibility for successful reunions is larger than ever as the North have accommodated nearly all of our proposals. Given all the hardships involved, both sides must do their best to prepare for the reunions without any snags.
The reunions are a humanitarian issue that have nothing to do with politics. But the meetings carry great political significance as they could be a breakthrough in the current stalemate in South-North relations. The meetings could serve as a litmus test of the sincerity of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, which focused on improving inter-Korean ties. Pyongyang’s acceptance of our proposal, without linking it to other issues, can pave the way for improved relations.
About 70,000 South Koreans have so far applied to the Red Cross for the reunions. So it is hardly enough for the two sides to only allow a few hundred of them to meet their relatives. Both sides must hold the reunions on a regular basis for humanitarian reasons while also drastically increasing the number of families who can take part. That will only prove to be possible when tensions on the Korean Peninsula are eased.
If the upcoming reunions are held smoothly and on schedule, Seoul needs to consider lifting the May 24 sanctions imposed on the North by the Lee Myung-bak administration after the Cheonan sinking in 2010. Of course, North Korea must apologize for the tragic sinking of our warship and also for the killing of a South Korean tourist in Mount Kumgang. President Park Geun-hye’s Korean Peninsula Peace Process will gain momentum when both sides try to build trust step by step.