S. Korea proposes new family reunions with N. Korea

SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye called Monday for the resumption of reunions for families separated since the Korean War, saying the programme could help ease “grave” strains with North Korea.

Park, in a New Year press conference, also promised increased humanitarian aid to the impoverished North to improve relations at a time of growing uncertainty.

She said last month’s shock purge and execution of Jang Song-Thaek, the once-powerful uncle and political regent to young leader Kim Jong-Un, had made it harder to predict the course of cross-border relations.

The security situation on the peninsula was “more grave than ever", she said, calling for an end to “threats of war” and for the two countries to “open up an era of reunification”.

Since Jang’s execution, “no one in the world can predict what might happen to North Korea and what action it might take,” Park said.

“We are making preparations for all kinds of possibilities.”

Park said the reunion programme would provide new momentum to improving ties following years of high tensions.

The South’s Red Cross later faxed a message to its Northern counterpart, calling for a meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Friday to discuss a next round of reunions, Seoul’s unification ministry said.

Panmunjom, which straddles the closely guarded border, has traditionally been used as a venue for inter-Korean talks since an armistice was signed to end the three-year Korean War in 1953.

North Korea last September cancelled a scheduled reunion of divided families, dealing an emotional blow to elderly Koreans denied a longed-for – and probably final – meeting with surviving relatives.

There are normally no opportunities for meetings or any other kind of contact between ordinary Korean families separated by the border.

After a painstaking selection process, 96 South Koreans had been set last year to travel to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort for a face-to-face gathering with family members they had not seen for 60 years.

It would have been the first such mass reunion for three years. But with just days to go, Pyongyang postponed the event, blaming “hostility” from South Korea.

“I hope that elderly members of separated families will be allowed to reunite around Lunar New Year (on January 31) to help heal the wounds in their hearts,” Park said.

She announced that the South would increase humanitarian aid and expand exchanges with the North this year, but did not give a figure.

Seoul last year offered 13.5 billion won ($12.7 million) in aid for the North Korean operations of international organisations like UNICEF. The South does not currently offer direct aid to the North.

Sporadic reunions of separated families began in earnest following a historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 and an estimated 17,000 people have been reunited for a few days since then.

But the gatherings were suspended again in 2010 after the North’s deadly shelling of a South Korean border island.

In the past year the North has staged a series of provocative actions, including a third nuclear test, threats of military attacks and the unilateral closure of an inter-Korean industrial zone.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because they never signed a peace treaty following the armistice.

“Next year will mark 70 years since the ational division,” Park said, referring to Korea’s separation at the end of World War II into two occupation zones administered by the Soviet Union and the United States.

“We must free ourselves from confrontation, threats of a war and nuclear blackmail and open up an era of reunification. We should make preparations for it.”