South Korea on Monday proposed high-level talks with North Korea to discuss the issues of separated families, humanitarian aid, economic cooperation and joint projects that could help lay the groundwork for unification.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said he had sent a message to Kim Yang-gon, director of the North's United Front Department, which is in charge of cross-border affairs, through a border telephone channel. Ryoo requested that they meet next month in Seoul, Pyongyang or elsewhere along with Chung Chong-wook, vice chair of the presidential committee on unification preparation.
Since its inception in July, the 50-member panel has been devising measures to expedite the two countries' reintegration. President Park Geun-hye heads the committee, while Ryoo serves as deputy chief.
The proposed projects include sports events, art festivals, a joint peace park, health and nutritional assistance, programs to preserve the environment and cultural heritage, and a trilateral industrial partnership with Russia.
The offer aimed at putting these ideas into effect as the two Koreas will mark the 70th anniversary of the peninsula's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, as well as its division, next year, Ryoo said.
"For such projects to materialize, inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation is vital. The South and the North should gather and chart a path to realise a peaceful unification," the minister said at a news conference.
"Through this meeting in particular, I hope to resolve the deep sorrow of the separated families before the Lunar New Year."
Though Ryoo sees the urgent need for a "groundbreaking resolution" of the separated families issue next year, the agenda will be open to "any items of mutual concern," he said, even including the longstanding bilateral bans on economic and people-to-people exchanges with the communist neighbour, and a lucrative yet halted tour to a scenic North Korean mountain resort.
The surprise announcement reflects the Park administration's resolve to improve relations with the North as it enters its pivotal third year ― under rising pressure to set forth her foreign policy legacy.
But the framework of the talks raised questions for many. Pyongyang has repeatedly criticised the committee's activities as attempts to topple its regime. The two Koreas could also build on a hard-won existing communication channel between Kim Kyou-hyun, vice chief of Cheong Wa Dae's National Security Office, and Won Dong-yon, deputy head of the United Front Department of the North's ruling Workers' Party, who in February held the first high-level inter-Korean dialogue since 2007.
With the cross-border ties at a crossroads, a possible turning point could come early as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is likely to send conciliatory signals in his own New Year address, given its need for economic handouts and an easing of sanctions.
Kim Yang-gon also recently delivered the young ruler's letter to Lee Hee-ho, the widow of late President Kim Dae-jung, and Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, which ran the tour and other inter-Korean programs.
This year, he called for enhanced ties with Seoul and relayed overtures, which led to the first round of reunions of families displaced by the Korean War in three years and four months in February. But the sides failed to sustain momentum amid a heated war of nerves and escalated tension.