Korean family reunions snub sours reconciliatory mood

A number of South Korean elderly people who were to meet their seperated families in North Korea cried after Pyongyang postponed the family reunions

Pyongyang on Saturday dampened the emerging mood for inter-Korean reconciliation as it unilaterally postponed the cross-border reunions of separated families slated for this week.

In a strongly worded statement, Seoul called the delay "inhumane" and upbraided the North for putting off the reunions slated for September 25-30 at Mount Geumgangsan for political reasons. It also warned of a "stern" response.

The North in return blamed conservatives in the South for fomenting confrontation and further hampering the mood for a thaw in bilateral ties.

Analysts say the North is apparently using the humanitarian issue to pressure the South to take a positive stance toward the resumption of the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan a crucial source of hard currency for the cash-strapped country.

Following the North's announcement, some 70 South Korean officials, who were at the mountain resort making preparations for the reunions, withdrew and returned to Seoul on Sunday. About 100 individuals from each side were to meet their long-lost families during the first reunions in three years.

The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, which announced the postponement, accused Seoul of abusing bilateral dialogue as a "tool for confrontation." It said the reunions would be delayed until a "normal atmosphere for dialogue is forged."

The committee also put off the bilateral talks over the resumption of the Geumgang tour programme, which were scheduled for Oct. 2.

"Inter-Korean relations are heading toward another crisis that can't be overlooked, due to the reckless, vicious commotion (to cause) confrontation by the South's conservatives," said the committee in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

"The Seoul government has smeared us by mentioning the recent improvement in inter-Korean relations as an outcome of its 'peninsular trust-building process' and 'principled North Korea policy,' and the Geumgang tour as a financial source (for us)."

The committee also berated Seoul for linking a high-profile revolt scandal involving a lawmaker to the North.

Representative Lee Seok-ki and several fellow members of the Unified Progressive Party have been detained on charges of creating a clandestine group called the "revolutionary organisation," and plotting an armed rebellion. They have denied the charges and argued they were fabricated.

Expressing regret over the delay, Seoul's Unification Ministry said the North's breach of the hard-won agreement to hold the reunions was an act to drive the two Koreas into another confrontation.

"The North's delay has dashed the hopes of some 200 people full of expectations and hopes that they would reunite with their loved ones in several days. The delay for political reasons can't be justified under any circumstances," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eyi-do told reporters.

"Seoul has long stressed it wants to normalise inter-Korean relations based on mutual recognition, peace and trust. … (Pyongyang) should face up to the fact that there will be nothing to gain from this."

Saying Seoul has long separated political issues from humanitarian ones, the spokesperson urged Pyongyang to promptly respond to Seoul's calls for the reunions to help heal the scars of the divided families.

A senior Cheong Wa Dae official said for now, the delay would not affect the operation of the joint inter-Korean industrial park in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong.

The postponement in the schedule of the reunions came as a shock to those who have been preparing to meet their loved ones separated since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

"Separated families have tossed and turned every night, full of expectations, and at the same time, with anxieties, as they were to meet people who they have not met for the last six decades," Shim Goo-seob, president of the association of separated families, told The Korea Herald.

"We are very frustrated, but there is still glimmer of hope as the North said it was a delay, not a cancellation."

Seoul has recently focused on the humanitarian aspect of the separated families issue as many of them have died of old age. Of the survivors, 9.3 per cent were over age 90, 40.5 per cent were in their 80s and 30.6 per cent in their 70s, according to government data.

About 72,880 of the 128,842 South Koreans registered since 1988 remain alive as of July 31, meaning that some 2,000 have died each year.

The Mount Geumgangsan tours were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier there for allegedly trespassing into a restricted area in July 2008.

The North has repeatedly called for the resumption of the tours, but the South has maintained that tours will not resume until the North provides a clear explanation for the shooting and guarantees full-scale safety measures for tourists in the future.

SERVICES