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(News Focus) family reunions postponed, straining inter-Korean ties

2013/09/21 21:33

By Lee Joon-seung

SEOUL, Sept. 21 (Yonhap) -- The sudden move by North Korea to postpone the planned reunions of separated family members is expected to set back cross-border relations that have improved following the reopening of a joint inter-Korean factory park after a five month hiatus, analysts said Saturday.

The two Koreas were to hold a new round of separated family reunions on Sept. 25-30 and have already exchanged the final lists of 196 candidate to be reunited at the North's mountain resort. An advanced party had arrived there on Friday to put the final touches on the preparations.

On Saturday, North Korea caught South Korea by surprise by unilaterally announcing that it will put off the planned family reunions till "a normal atmosphere is created" for the two sides to engage in constructive talks.

The communist North accused Seoul of seeking dialogue while at the same time pursuing "ever-escalating war provocations."

   "Dialogue can never go together with war," North Korea said in a statement issued through its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), a party organization that handles inter-Korean affairs.

The North, in particular, was angry at South Korea's suppression of "pro-unification patriots" on what it called "thrumped-up" charges of plotting to overthrow the Seoul government.

The North was referring to the arrest of several leftist South Korean politicians, including a lawmaker, earlier this month in connection with the case.

North Korean watchers said Pyongyang's decision to put off the family reunions clearly highlights the unpredictability of the regime and difficulties in dealing with it.

Noting that the North has also postponed another scheduled border meeting on Oct. 2 with South Korea on reopening a suspended cross-border tour to the North's mountain resort, they said Pyongyang appears to be trying to tie it with the family reunion project.

South Korea argues that the family reunions are a purely humanitarian project so it can't be linked to the tourism project. The cross-border tour has been suspended since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier there in 2010.

"In effect the North made it abundantly clear that it views family reunions and tours to the mountain resort as being a single package," said Yang Moo-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

The tours are important to the North because like the Kaesong factory park, they provide cash for the impoverished North.

He speculated that depending on how Seoul reacts, the North will allow family reunions to resume at a later date or put them off indefinitely.

Government officials and private analysts in Seoul are racking their brains trying to find out what the North's real intentions were in taking the drastic action.

"It can be assumed that the North postponed the family reunions because Seoul has maintained its rigid stance on the nuclear issue and remains non-committal to lifting blanket sanction implemented on it after the sinking of a South Korean warship near the sea border with North Korea in March 2010," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

The so-called May 24 sanctions bar all cross-border cooperation with North Korea with the exception of the Kaesong industrial complex and are actually more comprehensive than the United Nations embargo slapped on the North after it tested its third nuclear device in February.

An official from the Ministry of Unification argued that Pyongyang may have deemed the family reunions won't offer the kind of leverage it hoped for in dealing with the South.

The official, who declined to be identified, speculated that the North took the latest step because it believes that the family reunions are more important to the South than to itself.

Furthermore, the North has already secured the reopening of the Kaesong complex that can generate up to US$90 million in earnings every year, he said.

Seoul has already made clear that the postponement of the family reunions won't affect its ongoing efforts to normalize operations at Kaesong where South Korean factories started production on Monday.

The official said the North's announcement poses new challenges for the Seoul government's policy of gradually building trust and may affect its future policy initiative.

"The government's stance will be firm and take the form of telling the North that it will not accept actions that are detrimental to sustainable inter-Korean relations," he said.

The official pointed out that under President Park Geun-hye, Seoul will take resolute steps not to reward the North for any "bad behavior."

   Reflecting this mood, the South strongly denounced the North's latest move as "inhumane," warning that it amounts to driving inter-Korean relations back into a "state of confrontation." Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eyi-do made clear that the North will gain nothing from the measure.

"It is very regrettable that the North unilaterally postponed the reunions, with just four days left," he told reporters with a call for the North to hold the reunions as planned.

Seoul, meanwhile, said that it will pull out all its personnel from the mountain resort, who have been there to prepare for the family reunions.

The two Koreas have arranged 18 temporary reunions for separated family members since 2000. Millions of Koreans remain separated across the border since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The two Korea are still technically at war, having signed no peace treaty. There are no mail, phone lines and other direct means of communications between them.