09/13/2022, 14.25
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Seoul proposes talks to Pyongyang over reunions for families divided by war

by Guido Alberto Casanova

Starting in 2000, family reunions had become a way to promote inter-Korean dialogue. But in the last decade, this became increasingly rare with the last reunion held in 2018. Currently, in South Korea about 43,700 people are registered with the government's reunification programme, 85 per cent of them are over 70.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – For many divided families this could be the last time to hug one other.

On the eve of the traditional Korean holiday of Chuseok, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se reached out to Pyongyang to resume talks on allowing families divided between North and South to meet more frequently.

For more than 70 years, tens of thousands of families have been separated by the world's most militarised border, a legacy of Korea’s division and war (never formally concluded), which continue to pit South Korea and against North Korea since 1950.

Beginning in 2000, thanks to the "sunshine policy" of then President Kim Dae-jung, meetings between divided families became a way to promote inter-Korean dialogue and détente.

In the past decade, however, such meetings have become increasingly rare. The last one took place in 2018, when the diplomacy of then South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then US President Donald Trump briefly eased tensions with the North.

“[W]e need to solve the problem before the words ‘separated families’ themselves disappear,” said Minister Kwon.

Most of those who experienced the trauma of Korea’s division are very old. In South Korea, about 43,700 people are registered with the government's family reunion programme. About 85 per cent of them are 70 years old and over, Unification Ministry data show.

In his message to North Korea, Minister Kwon noted that occasional meetings of small numbers of divided families were not enough, adding that his government remains committed to dialogue at any time.

The proposal was quite unexpected, given that such opening comes at a time of tensions on the peninsula. In addition to the spread of COVID-19 in North Korea, Pyongyang has also been preparing a new nuclear test in the past few months, South Korean intelligence reports.

So far, South Korea’s new president,  Yoon Suk-yeol, does not seem to have aroused any sympathy among North Korean leaders; only last month, he promised a “audacious initiative" to denuclearise North Korea.

The reply of Kom Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader, was negative, telling Yoon to focus on domestic affairs rather than inter-Korean relations.

What is more, South Korea’s right-wing government is not planning to offer any incentives, such as food aid, to bring the North to negotiations. “North Korea must respond given that the issue of separate families is a humanitarian issue,” Minister Kwon said.

Still, last month, the Yoon administration, through the Unification Ministry, for the first time gave the green light to an aid plan by a civic group to offer food assistance to the North, the Yonhap news agency reports.

Even though Pyongyang has often remained silent in recent years vis-à-vis Seoul's initiatives, Kwon will not give up. “Even if there is no response from North Korea, we will continue to knock on the door and make proposals,” Minister Kwon explained.

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