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(4th LD) Park proposes family reunions, peace park establishment in DMZ with N. Korea

2013/08/15 16:47

(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 16-18 with unification ministry to take follow-up steps, one more Japanese cabinet member visiting shrine; TRIMS)

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye proposed Thursday that South and North Korea hold reunions for separated families and establish a peace park in their heavily armed border, a day after the two sides reached a landmark deal to reopen a joint industrial complex.

In a Liberation Day address marking the end of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Park also urged Tokyo to face up to history and take "responsible and earnest" measures to console the victims of its wartime atrocities, an apparent reference to those forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

The proposals to North Korea, if realized, could bring about a significant thaw in relations between the two sides that sank to one of their lowest levels after Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch in December, its third nuclear test in February and the subsequent war threats.

The offers also showed the confidence Park has gained in dealing with Pyongyang.

The North's agreement to reopen the factory park in its border city of Kaesong -- largely under conditions demanded by the South -- represented a victory for the unbending, principled approach Park has taken toward the communist nation in the face of spiraling tensions.

"I hope the agreement this time will serve as an opportunity to remedy what went wrong in inter-Korean relations in the past and help build a new relationship of mutual prosperity," Park said during the address.

"Through the trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula, I hope that peace will take a firm root and that the two Koreas will be able to realize common progress," she said.

The process is Park's signature policy on North Korea. It calls for the two sides to take confidence-building measures so as to reduce tensions across one of the world's most heavily fortified borders, while maintaining a firm deterrence against provocations.

"First and foremost, we have to ease the pains of separated families. I hope the North will be able to work together to make the reunion of the separated families possible around the time of the upcoming Chuseok holidays," she said, referring to one of Korea's most important traditional holidays, which falls on Sept. 19 this year.

"In addition, I propose to the North the creation of an international peace park at the Demilitarized Zone, which is a legacy of division and confrontation between the two Koreas," she said.

The DMZ is a four-kilometer buffer zone bisecting the Korean Peninsula.

Park unveiled the DMZ park vision during her visit to the United States earlier this year, but the idea has since gained little traction due largely to questions about its possibility amid heightened tensions. It was the first time that she has made a formal proposal to the North about the ambitious project.

Millions of Koreans were separated from their families following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war. Their border is tightly sealed and there are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians.

The divided Koreas have held 18 temporary reunions since a landmark summit between their leaders in 2000, bringing together more than 20,000 family members who had not seen each other since the war.

The last reunions were held in 2010.

The unification ministry said later that it will take steps to follow up on Park's proposals.

"Considering that about a month is left before Chuseok, we will study and carry out specific measures as early as possible," a ministry official said of the family reunion proposal, adding that at least 30 days are necessary to set up such reunions.

The ministry is expected to send a formal message to North Korea as early as Friday.

The government also plans to begin inter-agency discussions on the peace park project as well.

Park also urged Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs, saying Seoul is ready to "actively help the North in an open-hearted manner" if it forgoes nuclear ambitions and changes its attitudes. She also said the South will continue humanitarian assistance regardless of the political situation.

"Safeguarding peace requires deterrence. Building peace requires a foundation of mutual trust," she said. "Even if it takes some time, the trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula will be steadily pursued as our means to establish South-North relations that accord with common sense and international norms and to carve out true peace and trust."

   Park's address had also been closely watched for what message she would give to Japan.

But the speech include no significant proposal and largely repeated the same line that she has stuck to, such as calling for Japan to face up to its imperialistic past and take steps to address long-running grievances of victims of its colonial-era atrocities.

"In the absence of courage to face the past and determination to care for another's pain, it will be difficult to build the trust necessary for our future," she said. "It is time for the political leaders of Japan to show us a leadership of courage that seeks to bring healing for the wounds of the past."

   Park also said that she looks forward to seeing "responsible and earnest action that will seek in particular to heal the pain of those who, even now, carry with them the scars of history."

   The harsh colonial rule left deep scars on the hearts of Koreans as they were banned from using their own language at schools and forced to adopt Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were also mobilized as forced laborers and sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women."

   Historians say that tens of thousands of Asian women, mostly Koreans, were forced to work at front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Victims of sexual slavery have been euphemistically called "comfort women."

   Relations between South Korea and Japan were strained even before Park took office in February, and have since soured further due to Japan's repeated claims to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo and its unrepentant attitude toward the sexual slavery issue.

Park has shunned a summit with Japan, visiting China in June on her second overseas trip as president after the first trip to the United States a month earlier. Her predecessors have usually visited Japan ahead of China. Some have even doubted whether a summit with Japan will be able to take place before the end of the year.

Last month, Park said she is not interested in holding a summit with Japan simply for the sake of talks, stressing it is not the right time for a meeting as Japan "keeps touching the scars of our people" with regard to the Dokdo and sexual slavery issues.

In another move expected to draw protests from neighboring nations, three members of Japan's cabinet paid their respects Thursday at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine seen as a symbol of the country's imperialistic past.

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s, and Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada made a visit to the shrine that honors Japan's war dead, and includes Class-A criminals.

Also Thursday, about 100 Japanese lawmakers also paid homage at the shrine en masse.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, did not visit the shrine, apparently mindful of the expected furor his visit would draw from neighboring countries. Instead, he made a monetary offering to the shrine via an aide.

Still, Abe neither mentioned remorse for Japan's militaristic past nor included a no-war pledge in his speech at a memorial service for his country's war dead, breaking away from his predecessors who included the phrases in their memorial service addresses.

The failure to show contrition could spark protests from neighboring countries as it could be seen as an attempt to deny the 1995 statement that Japan's then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued as an apology for the country's wartime atrocities.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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