SEOUL: The two Koreas moved a step closer Monday to resuming reunions for families separated by the Korean War, although final agreement could be derailed by a row over South Korean-US military exercises.
After weeks of back-and-forth, and a period of silence from North Korea, the two rivals finally settled on a date for preparatory talks to set up a reunion event at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort. Pyongyang on Monday offered talks on Wednesday, Feb. 5 or Thursday, Feb. 6. Seoul chose Wednesday and the North accepted the proposal.
The working-level meeting will be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom where the armistice ending the 1950-53 conflict was signed. “We welcome that the North has finally come forward to discuss the reunion,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-Do told reporters.
“Given the urgency of the matter, we will make preparations to hold the reunion as soon as possible,” Kim said.
The “urgency” refers to the fact that, 60 years after the war ended, many of those who suffered the division of their families have died. Most of those still living are in advanced old age.
In a surprise move that coincided with a series of other apparently conciliatory gestures, North Korea offered last month to host a reunion and asked South Korea to pick the dates.
Seoul quickly proposed February 17-21, but given the time that has since elapsed that schedule now looks optimistic.
The reunion program began in earnest in 2000 following a historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.
If the Mount Kumgang gathering goes ahead, it would be the first reunion since 2010 when the program was suspended following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island.
A reunion with around 100 people from each side had been planned last September but Pyongyang canceled at the last minute, citing unspecified South Korean “hostility.”
There are concerns it may do the same this time around, given Pyongyang’s strident demands that South Korea cancel annual military exercises with the United States that are scheduled to kick off at the end of February.
Seoul has made it clear the annual drills, which are routinely condemned by the North as provocative rehearsals for invasion, will go ahead.
Last year Washington put on a show of military might for the exercises, deploying nuclear-capable stealth bombers and an attack submarine in response to sabre-rattling by North Korea.
US military officials have indicated the drill will be scaled back this year — with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers — in an apparent effort to mollify Pyongyang.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry may add a Seoul trip to his itinerary when he visits China later this month for talks that will include the thorny issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“I will be in China in two weeks working on the North Korean issue, working with Korea, Japan, reunification…,” Kerry told a security conference in Munich on Saturday.