Seoul demands family reunions, tours be discussed separately

SEOUL - Seoul on Monday reiterated its demand to separate the issues of reunions of divided families and stalled tours to Mount Geumgang as a cash-strapped Pyongyang seeks to link them to reopen the lucrative resort programme.

Concerned that the more challenging issue of the tour resumption could complicate its efforts for the family reunions, the South did not immediately respond to the North's proposal on Sunday for talks on the resort that has been suspended since 2008.

"It is more accurate to say (Seoul) is cautious, rather than saying it is either positive or negative (about proposed talks over the tours)," a Seoul official told reporters.

"We will decide how to respond in due consideration of our long-held stance over the tours and the overall inter-Korean relationship."

The tours to the scenic mountain on the east coast, once touted as a symbol of cross-border reconciliation, were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July 2008 for venturing into an off-limits area.

The South has maintained the tours will not resume until the North introduces measures to prevent a recurrence of a similar tragedy and ensure the safety of tourists.

On Sunday, Pyongyang proposed holding working-level talks over the tours on Thursday, while accepting Seoul's earlier offer of a meeting on Friday over the family reunions around Korean Thanksgiving next month.

Observers said the North, once again, revealed its intention to link the issues as it offered dialogue just a day before the two sides could sit to discuss the reunion of families separated since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last month, the North concurrently suggested talks over the two issues, but it shelved both meetings as the South only accepted talks on separated families, which Seoul regards as an urgent humanitarian issue.

The North's push to restart the resort underscores its desperate struggle to secure sources of foreign currency to shore up its moribund economy, amid deepening international isolation stemming from its nuclear and missile development.

The North is said to have raked in US$1.5 million (S$1.9 million) in 2006 and $2 million in 2007 through the tour programme. After the suspension of the resort, the North seized South Korean assets, turned it into a special tourism zone and pushed to attract Chinese tourists. But the efforts were not successful.

In Sunday's statement by the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, the communist state said during proposed talks over the tours, the two sides could "comprehensively" discuss a range of issues that are of Seoul's concern.

It was seen as an indication of the North's desire toward a compromise on these issues, which could lead to a breakthrough in bilateral relations that have deteriorated in recent years due to Pyongyang's series of provocations.

Meanwhile, as the North on Monday handed its official document for talks over the issues to the South through a communications channel in the border village of Panmunjeom, the South sent its official reply to it.

Seoul requested the meeting over the separated families be held in Panmunjeom as initially proposed and said that it would present its stance about the talks over the mountain resort later.

Pyongyang said it wanted to hold talks over the family reunions in Mount Geumgang ― a move analysts said was intended to underscore the need to resume the resort.