SOUTH KOREA/NORTH KOREA: On Thursday, South Korea offered the North a seat at the diplomatic table to convene over matters of the reunification of separated families, torn by the 1950-53 Korean War. The move was the first direct overture under President Yoon Suk-yeol despite strained cross-border relationships.
The surprise came just a few days before the thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok, a time of reunion with familial harmony, celebrated when the two Koreas held family reunions in the past.
However, the prospects are not favourable, with North Korea refusing to hold diplomatic talks of denuclearization, and racing to improve its nuclear arsenal without paying heed to Yoon’s administration.
The traditional Korean festival of Chuseok is held around the autumn equinox, at the very end of summer or early autumn. Koreans huddle around each other over hearty food and wine to give thanks to their ancestors for an abundant autumn harvest.
While South Koreans enjoy the festival with great fanfare, North Koreans celebrate it for just one day with limited abundance, despite what the festival entails.
The victims of the 1950-53 Korean war and several North Korean defectors who have settled in the South, however, do not have the luxury or privilege to spend time with their families and enjoy Chuseok.
South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, urged a swift, positive response, saying Seoul would welcome possibilities of any talk with North Korea and its preferences on a specific date, venue, agenda and format.
“We hope that responsible officials of the two sides will meet in person as soon as possible for a candid discussion on humanitarian matters including the issue of separated families,” Kwon told a news conference.
Hours after the proposal, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced the renewal of high-level military talks with the United States, designed to bolster mobilisation and military deterrence against the North, which includes a U.S. nuclear umbrella.
The conservative Yoon, who assumed office in May vowed to boost South Korea’s military prowess and strengthen so-called extended deterrence, which refers to the ability of the U.S. military, particularly its nuclear forces, to curb attacks on U.S. allies.
Hong Min, a senior fellow at the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said North Korea might perceive South Korea’s offer of both dialogue and deterrence efforts as a sign of what it has called double standards.
In the past, the two Koreas have managed to hold family reunions around traditional holidays in the country, mostly under liberal leadership in the South that has tried to engage with the North.
But cross-border connections have soured. The North has conducted an unprecedented number of missile operations this year and is believed to have made preparations for its first nuclear test since 2017.
Moreover, in mid-August, the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong thwarted President Suk’s “foolish” offer of monetary aid in the exchange for denuclearization, saying “no one barters its destiny for corn cake”.
When questioned on the possibility of food aid to the North, Kwon said his government was not currently exploring “special incentives” but would be willing to “consider positively if the North makes other humanitarian requests.”
Even if North Korea rejected the offer of talks, South Korea would “continuously make proposals”, he said.
Kwon said the offer would be sent via an inter-Korean hotline to Ri Son-Gwon, director of the North’s United Front Department, which handles South Korea issues.
Lim Eul-Chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said chances were slim that the North would accept the offer, citing its recent comments on Yoon.
“Family reunions are a basic humanitarian issue but in reality, it requires a substantial level of trust between both sides,” he said.
Families have been torn by the standoff that has persisted between the two countries since the infamous 195-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
More than 133,000 South Koreans have registered for family reunions since 1988, but only about 44,000 of them are still alive as of August, with 37% in their 80s and 30% in their 90s, Unification Ministry data showed.
The last official reunions took place as recent as 2018 when Yoon’s liberal predecessor held summits with Kim Jong-un and tried to broker a peace deal between North Korea and the United States.
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