Seoul to set up body to prepare unification

File photo of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.

KOREA - South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday unveilled a plan to launch a preparatory committee for reunification to build public consensus and create a blueprint for the unified peninsula.

Park recently referred to reunification as an "economic bonanza" for South Korea and neighbouring countries with a renewed commitment to laying the groundwork for it.

"We'd like to seek a systematic, constructive direction for reunification by launching the committee," she said during a nationally televised news conference announcing her three-year economic innovation plan.

"At it, we will embrace public opinions by inviting civilian experts and civic groups covering diplomacy, security, economy, society and culture, and map out a blueprint for the unified Korea."

Park, in particular, stressed the need for reunification while mentioning the agonies of the families separated across the border since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The same day, hundreds of Koreans bade a tearful farewell to their kin during the second round of the reunions at the Mount Geumgangsan resort.

"For too long, we have suffered the pangs of separation. As we have witnessed through these reunions, separation has given excruciating pain to these families who met one another but had to be separated again."

"For genuine peace and for Korea to take another great leap forward, we need to prepare to open a new era of reunification."

After the three-day reunions ended at the mountain resort, hundreds of elderly Koreans wept, knowing that it would be their last chance to meet unless Korea reunified.

"You should live long, live long, my father," Nam Gungbongja, 61, told her 87-year-old father Gung-ryol of the North.

"They will send you here again. We will meet again," her father said in return.

During the second round of the gatherings, 357 South Koreans met 88 North Korean relatives, while in the first round, 80 South Koreans, accompanied by 56 family members, were reunited with 174 North Korean relatives.

The emotional scenes of the first reunions in more than three years underscored the pressing need to normalise the cross-border gatherings, institute a system to ascertain whether relatives on each side are still alive and allow the families to exchange letters.

Many argue that holding reunions for the elderly people should be isolated from politics and viewed as a humanitarian concern.

During the latest reunions, most of the participants were older than 80. Some of them were taken to a hospital and returned home in the middle of the gatherings due to fatigue, emotional distress, dementia and other age-related illnesses.

According to government data, 129,264 people have been registered as having relatives in the North. Nearly 45 per cent of them have passed away with an average of 4,000 people dying each year since 2004.

Despite the urgent need for regularizing the reunions, experts remain sceptical given that Pyongyang may believe that the cross-border family gatherings could potentially pose a challenge to its hold on the dynastic ruling system.

Through the reunions, many South Koreans would show to their relatives in the North an image their country that contradicts what the repressive regime has taught its people.

To resolve the issue of separated families, experts concurred that the overall inter-Korean relations should first improve.

Following the family reunions, the two sides are expected to seek new momentum to mend fences and start discussing a wide range of issues including the resumption of the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan and the lifting of Seoul's ban on government-level economic exchanges with the North.

But it remains to be seen whether they could reconcile their differences easily when there has been no progress in North Korea's denuclearization, observers noted.