ROK, DPRK discuss reunions

Updated: 2013-08-24 08:13

By Agence (China Daily)

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 ROK, DPRK discuss reunions

Head of the working-level delegation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Park Yong-il (center), is greeted by a Republic of Korea delegate as he crosses the border that separates the DPRK and the ROK at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone on Friday. The ROK and the DPRK began talks to arrange reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, according to local media. Reuters

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea held talks on Friday on resuming reunions for families separated for decades by the 1950-53 Korean War as they seek to build on a recent easing of cross-border tensions.

The reunion program was suspended after the DPRK's shelling of an ROK border island in November 2010, and its resumption after three years would mark a symbolic but important step.

The talks, between DPRK and ROK Red Cross officials, took place in the border village of Panmunjom, where the 1953 ceasefire ending hostilities was signed.

"The issue of separated families is one of the most urgent tasks," the head of the ROK Red Cross delegation told reporters on his way to the venue.

"I will do my best to relieve their pain," he was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

An official with the ROK Unification Ministry said the morning session focused on the date and venue of any initial reunion, as well as the number of family members who might be selected to take part.

The talks were almost derailed by a debate over the venue, with the DPRK wanting the meeting to be held at its Mount Kumgang resort.

As well as the family reunions, Pyongyang is keen to restart ROK tours to Mount Kumgang, but Seoul insists that the two issues should not be linked.

The ROK suspended the tours in 2008 after a DPRK soldier shot dead a female tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.

The push to restart the reunions was initiated last week by ROK President Park Geun-hye, who urged the DPRK to "open its heart" and agree to kickstart the program in time for next month's Chuseok holiday - when Korean families traditionally gather together.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the war. Most have died without having had a chance to meet family members last seen six decades ago.

About 72,000 ROK citizens - nearly half of them aged over 80 - are still alive and wait-listed for a chance to join the highly competitive family reunion events, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.

At the reunions, citizens from both sides typically meet in the DPRK for two or three days before the ROK citizens - many in tears - head home again.

For those too infirm to travel, reunions via video conferencing have been arranged in recent years.

The reunion program began in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 people briefly reunited.

The last such meeting took place in late 2010, before the DPRK's shelling of Yeonpyeong island.

ROK-DPRK relations have showed signs of improving recently after months of heightened military tensions that followed the DPRK's nuclear test in February.

The two sides have already agreed to work on reopening their Kaesong joint industrial zone shut down in April, and the ROK has accepted the DPRK's proposal for talks on the Mount Kumgang tours - although not until late September.

The ROK has sought to play down expectations of a sudden turnaround in relations with the DPRK, saying the recent breakthroughs are just the start of what will be a long, incremental progress.

Park has also made it clear that any substantial dialogue on strategic issues can only take place if the DPRK offers a tangible commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The DPRK has said it will never allow its nuclear deterrent to be used as a bargaining chip.

France-Presse in Seoul