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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 223 (August 16, 2012)

S. Korea Urges N. Korea's Cooperation over Reunions for Separated Families

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Following the recent refusal by North Korea to hold family reunions, South Korea on Aug. 13 urged the North to cooperate in arranging the humanitarian event to reunite families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

   "Reuniting separated families is the top assignment which should be resolved without fail," said Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean issues.

   Pyongyang should show a "forward-looking" change of stance toward the reunion event, Kim said in a press briefing, also noting "The (South's) government will muster all efforts possible" to help arrange it.

   The spokesman's comments came after the North expressed its refusal of the proposal last week by Seoul and the South Korean Red Cross to hold working-level talks later this month regarding the reunion arrangements.

   In a dispatch carried by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Aug. 10, the North rejected the meeting proposal, noting Seoul should first lift sanctions imposed after a deadly sinking of a South Korean navy warship in March 2010, before attempting to resume the suspended family reunion event.

   "It is contradictory and nonsensical for the south side to propose reunions under the situation where the May 24 step is still in force to bar all travels of persons and cooperation between the north and the south and the road to Mount Kumgang is blocked," the KCNA said in an English-language dispatch.

   The May 24 step refers to a series of sanctions adopted on May 24, 2010 that banned cross-border trade. The tourism project to the Mount Kumgang area near the border was suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in July 2008.

   In return for scrapping the punitive measures, Seoul has demanded Pyongyang issue an official apology over the sinking of the Cheonan, which killed 46 crew members, but the North has denied it had any role in the sinking that marked one of the worst naval disasters in the South Korean history.

   Reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which left the Korean Peninsula divided in two, have been suspended for years due to a chill in relations between the two Koreas, while an increasing number of separated family members are dying of old age.

   About 81,800 South Koreans are registered with the government as separated families as of this year.

   The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the war.

   South Korea wants to resume regular reunions but none have taken place since October 2010.

   Seoul's Unification Ministry, meanwhile, came under fire for its secretive handling of the reunion proposal, whose issuance and rejection from the North were not announced to local press before the North's surprise revelation on Friday in the KCNA report.

   A similar proposal filed by Seoul in February had remained unanswered from the North.

   Asked whether the repeated rejections indicate dissolution of reunion attempts, the Unification Ministry spokesman said, "(Seoul) will study all possible ways and take proper actions to successfully arrange reunions."