For North ties, gov’t keeps emphasis on reunions

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For North ties, gov’t keeps emphasis on reunions

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Kim Ui-sun, center, 97, visits the headquarters of the Korea National Red Cross in Jung District, central Seoul, on Thursday with her son to apply for the reunions of families separated by the division of the peninsula. Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said Thursday that the government will hold further talks with North Korea to realize the reunions during the coming Chuseok holiday.[NEWSIS]

Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said the government would hold further talks with North Korea over the reunions of families separated by the division of the peninsula.

In a report to lawmakers at the National Assembly on Thursday, Hong, who participated in the writing of a six-point agreement between South and North Korea earlier this week, said the government would “continue negotiations [with North Korea] to hold reunions so that separated families can reunite with their loved ones at the earliest.”

The reunions were one of the six points that Hong and his partner Kim Kwan-jin, director of National Security, reached with their two North Korean counterparts after protracted negotiation held in the border village of Panmunjom, which began Saturday and ended in the early hours of Tuesday. The agreement ended a military standoff that raised the specter of armed conflict on the peninsula.

“We [South and North Korea] agreed to regularize reunions for separated families after we resume them on the occasion of the Chuseok holiday and stipulated that [in the joint agreement],” said the Oxford-trained scholar.

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Hong Yong-pyo

In South Korea, 66,292 people have registered to reunite with their loved ones as of July, and 80 percent of them are 70 years old or older, leaving them little time to meet relatives after decades of separation.

On rising speculation that the Park Geun-hye government is about to lift the so-called May 24 sanctions imposed by the Lee Myung-bak government five years ago in retaliation for the sinking of the Cheonan warship, which killed 46 sailors, the minister reiterated the long-held government position that North Korea must “display a responsible attitude” for the sinking, a remark understood as the South’s demand for an apology by the North.

Seoul attributes the sinking to a torpedo from one of Pyongyang’s submarines. North Korea denies responsibility and has demanded the removal of the punitive sanctions.

Hong’s remark to lawmakers on the parliamentary foreign affairs and reunification committee echoed the Blue House’s position announced earlier in the day that the issue of family reunions, which were last held in February 2014, was the most urgent inter-Korean matter that called for swift implementation.

The Blue House also expressed caution on rising speculation that the government would lift the May 24 sanctions in light of the Aug. 25 agreement, which has raised hopes for a thaw in the frosty inter-Korean relations of the past seven years.

In a press briefing Thursday, Min Kyung-wook, the Blue House spokesman, said no discussion had been made on possible removal of the sanctions, noting there was no change in the government’s position on the sanctions that halted all inter-Korean business cooperation except for the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex north of the border.

He said the arrangement of reunions was chosen as an urgent inter-Korean issue during a National Security Council meeting convened earlier in the day, which was presided over by national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin, who led the 43-hour negotiations for Seoul.

Min’s note on the sanctions was seen as an indicator of the government’s discomfort over media reports saying their lifting was the best way to improve bilateral ties after Tuesday’s agreement.

“Unfiltered ideas about North Korea policy [reported by the press] are understood as our official position by North Korea, and it raises the bar set by the North at negotiating tables,” an official from the Unification Ministry said.

While the government cautioned against premature predictions, Kim Yang-gon, the top official who oversees inter-Korean relations for Pyongyang and one of the duo sent from Pyongyang for the marathon talks, said the two Koreas should “move in a constructive direction toward reunification.”

In a news report by Korean Central Television on Thursday, the veteran North Korean official said South and North Korea should “vitalize inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges across many fields in the spirit of the joint agreements” so that the two could “nurture a turnaround” from the previous tensions.

Though Kim expressed his hope for better ties, it remains to be seen whether Pyongyang will take responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan warship as demanded by Seoul.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]


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