South Korea offers talks with North to discuss reunion of war-torn families

This is its first direct overture since President Yoon Suk-Yeol took office in May



Photo: AP
Photo: AP

By Reuters

Published: Thu 8 Sep 2022, 7:34 AM

Last updated: Thu 8 Sep 2022, 1:59 PM

On Thursday, South Korea offered talks with North Korea to discuss a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War — its first direct overture, since President Yoon Suk-Yeol took office in May.

Unification Minister Kwon Young-Se, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, held a briefing to make the offer, saying that Seoul would consider Pyongyang's preferences in deciding the date, venue, agenda and format of the talks.

"We hope that responsible officials of the two sides will meet in person as soon as possible for a candid discussion on humanitarian matters including the issue of separated families," Kwon said.

Hours after the proposal, South Korea's foreign ministry announced a revival of high-level talks with the United States — designed to boost deterrence against the North — which includes a US nuclear umbrella.

The conservative Yoon took office in May, vowing to bolster South Korea's military capabilities and strengthen the so-called extended deterrence, which refers to the ability of the US military — particularly its nuclear forces — to deter attacks on its allies.

Hong Min, a senior Fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (in the South), pointed out that North Korea might see South Korea's offer of dialogue and deterrence efforts as a sign of what it has called double standards.

The two Koreas have held family reunions around major holidays, mostly under liberal governments in the South, which sought to re-engage the North, and provide food and other handouts.

The surprise proposal came days before the thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok, but prospects remain unpromising — given testy cross-border ties — with the North racing to beef up its weapons arsenals.

Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, said last month that Yoon ought to "shut his mouth", after he had reiterated his plan to provide economic aid, in return for nuclear disarmament.

When asked about the possibility of food aid, Kwon said that his government was not considering "special incentives", and the North was to respond, in order to address humanitarian matters.

Even if Pyongyang rejected his offer, Seoul would "continuously make proposals”, Kwon added.

Kwon added that the offer would be sent via an inter-Korean hotline to Ri Son-Gwon, the director of the North's United Front Department, which handles South Korea issues.

Lim Eul-Chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said that chances were extremely low that the North would accept the offer, citing its recent comments on Yoon.

"Family reunions is a basic humanitarian issue, but in reality, it requires a substantial level of trust between both sides," he said.

'Audacious plan'

Yoon, who took office in May, has unveiled what he called an "audacious" plan to provide economic aid in return for nuclear disarmament, but said he would respond sternly to the North's provocations.

Kwon clarified that the proposal for talks was not part of Yoon's aid-for-denuclearisation initiative, but was meant as a step to restart humanitarian exchanges, regardless of the political and military situation.

Lim noted that Yoon's government was probably not expecting North Korea to accept the offer, but might have seen some domestic value in making it, given Yoon's low approval ratings and cross-border tension.

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Families have been separated by a standoff that has persisted since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

More than 133,000 South Koreans have registered for family reunions since 1988, but only about 44,000 of them are still alive as of August, with 37 per cent in their 80s and 30 per cent in their 90s, Unification Ministry data showed.

The last family reunions took place in 2018, when Yoon's liberal predecessor held summits with Kim Jong Un and tried to broker a peace agreement between North Korea and the United States.

The last round of family reunions took place in 2018, when Yoon's liberal predecessor held summits with Kim and tried to broker a peace agreement between Pyongyang and Washington.


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