Seoul proposes meeting with Pyongyang on Korean family reunions

SEOUL (AP): South Korea’s new government on Thursday proposed a meeting with North Korea to resume reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War, despite long-strained ties between the rivals over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Family reunions are a highly emotional, humanitarian issue because they involve those in their 80s and older who are desperate to reunite with their long-lost relatives before they die. But North Korea, which often uses such reunions as a bargaining chip in dealings with South Korea, is unlikely to accept the offer because it’s steadfastly rebuffing Seoul’s and Washington’s offers to resume talks on its nuclear program and other issues while focusing instead on perfecting its weapons technology.

“The South and the North should confront the painful parts of the reality. We must solve the matter before the term ‘separated families’ disappears,” Unification Minister Kwon Youngse said in a televised briefing. “We need to use all possible means immediately to come up with quick and fundamental measures.”

Kwon said South Korea hopes that responsible officials of the two Koreas will meet in person as soon as possible for a candid discussion.

His offer came two days before Chuseok, the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in both Koreas.

Exchange programs between the Koreas remain stalled since the 2019 collapse of a broader US-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits. Washington has urged Pyongyang to return to talks without any conditions, but it has said it won’t do so unless the United States first drop its hostile policies on the North.

Since taking office in May, South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol has offered a massive support plan in return for denuclearization but North Korea has bluntly rejected it. Yoon has also offered the shipment of COVID-19 relief items, but North Korea has ignored them as well. Last month, North Korea blamed its recent COVID-19 outbreak on balloons flown from South Korea and warned of a deadly retaliation.

North Korea also maintains more than 2 1/2 years of pandemic-related border shutdowns, another possible obstacle against the revival of family reunions.

Some observers say South Korea may try to use talks on family reunions as a way to find a breakthrough in ties with North Korea. Kwon told reporters that he thinks an offer of dialogue for family reunions can help resolve other issues between the two Koreas.

Since the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, the two Koreas have been banning millions of people split by the war from visiting their relatives across the world’s most heavily fortified border. Decades later, most have no word on whether their loved ones are still alive.

The Koreas have occasionally allowed separated families to meet temporarily, but such a reunion hasn’t happened since 2018. According to the Unification Ministry, about 133,650 people in South Korea have applied for reunions but nearly 70 percent of them have died.

During past reunions, participants were typically given three days to meet their relatives and none was given a second chance to see them again. Those reunions brought together parents and children, brothers and sisters and others who sobbed, hugged and asked each other about their lives.

South Korea uses a computerized lottery system to pick participants. Observers say North Korea chooses citizens loyal to its authoritarian government and is reluctant to expand reunions because it worries its citizens’ contacts with more affluent South Koreans could weaken its rule.

During a previous “Sunshine” era of inter-Korean detente from 1998-2008, liberal South Korean governments often provided North Korea with rice and fertilizers to hold reunions. Kwon said the new government isn’t considering any incentives to resume reunions.

He said the government is seeking to send an official message to North Korea on its offer for talks. Kwon said.