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2009/09/03 10:52 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 70 (September 3, 2009)


Koreas Agree on First Family Reunions in 2 Years in Sign of Thawing Ties

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea agreed last week to again hold reunions for families separated by the Korean War more than half a century ago, to be the first in nearly two years, in a sign of thawing cross-border ties. The sides reached the agreement on their third and final day of talks on Aug. 28 at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort.

   The countries released a joint statement setting a new round of family reunions for Sept. 26 to Oct. 1, shortly before the traditional Korean holiday of Chuseok. Arranged by the Red Cross offices on both sides, they are to be held at the scenic mountain on North Korea's east coast.

   The agreement was one of the latest signs that North Korea may be shifting towards reconciliation with the South. A visit by a North Korean delegation to Seoul following the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the normalization of cross-border traffic near the Kaesong joint industrial park shortly after the reunion talks have also signaled that relations may be warming on the peninsula.

   Also on Aug. 28, during the negotiations, North Korea said it would return four South Korean fishermen captured after their boat went astray on July 30. Pyongyang delivered on that promise the following day, removing another hurdle for the future of inter-Korean ties.

   But the two sides made little progress over the contentious issue of war prisoners and missing civilians. Seoul has pushed for locating prisoners from the 1950-53 Korean War and civilians who were allegedly detained by the North during the Cold War era -- mostly fishermen whose boats had strayed into North Korean waters -- but those issues were excluded from the joint statement. Pyongyang kept the negotiations narrowly focused on the main agenda item of setting the schedule.

   Seoul estimates about 1,000 former prisoners and other South Koreans are still alive in the North, though Pyongyang says it is not holding anyone against their will.

   "These were the first Red Cross talks under this administration. It's been so long, and we tried hard to produce good results, but not everything came out the way we'd intended," Kim Young-chel, South Korea's chief delegate to the talks and secretary general of the Red Cross Society in Seoul, told pool reporters.

   The reunion event will run for three days and bring together 100 relatives from either side of the border. During the traditional Chuseok holiday period that falls on the first week of October this year, Koreans return to their rural hometowns to give thanks to their ancestors and celebrate the fall harvest.

   About 600,000 South Koreans are believed to have relatives in the North. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to make phone calls, send letters or exchange e-mails across the border.

   In a follow-up measure, Red Cross offices of the two Koreas exchanged the names of 200 candidates for the family reunions on Sept. 1, but officials at South Korea's Red Cross were still receiving phone calls and visits from separated family members who want to apply.

   North Korean media reported the news of the agreement. In a dispatch on the reunions, the official Korean Central News Agency said the Koreas will continue talks on the humanitarian issues "from the standpoint of developing inter-Korean relations."

   Choson Sinbo, a newspaper in Japan that reflects North Korea's official position, ran a report Aug. 27 saying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has decided to break the impasse in inter-Korean relations. The upcoming family reunions "will be a new watershed in improving inter-Korean relations," the report said. "With the (North Korean) supreme leader's resolution in August this year, a breakthrough has been made in the inter-Korean stalemate."

   Experts in Seoul said the reunion accord has offered a fresh ray of hope that Seoul and Pyongyang will be able to mend their ties. But they stressed the two nations still have a long way to go if they hope to restore the conciliatory mood seen during Seoul's past two liberal adminstrations -- especially given South Korea's commitment to United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea for its recent nuclear and missile tests.

   "We can read the agreement as a virtual resumption of talks between the two governments," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It is the first achievement for the Lee Myung-bak government within the inter-Korean context."

   Kim was guarded in optimism, however, saying that any thaw will have to come in the context of progress on North Korea's nuclear issue and the country's relations with the U.S. "Within the nuclear issue, the North cannot afford to neglect its relations with the South. That is also what the U.S. wants," said Kim.

   Yoo Ho-yeol, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul, said North Korea was softening toward the South with the larger goal of improved relations with the U.S.

   "What is crucial for the current (South Korean) administration's North Korea policy is to maintain a calm stance, regardless of any given political situation, while keeping a consistent demand that the North shift its policy," Yoo said.