South Korea proposes resuming reunion program for families separated by border


South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks during her New Year's press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 6. (Jung Yeon-je/AP)

South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday proposed a new round of reunions for families divided by this peninsula’s impermeable border, calling the humanitarian offer a potential “first step” to build trust between the two Koreas.

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to Park’s statement, which came during a nationally televised news conference. Such reunions have been on hold for more than three years, one of the most obvious casualties of a period during which the North has launched military attacks on the South and volleyed threats of nuclear war.

Though Park has castigated the North for its weapons program, she has also shown more interest than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, in mending badly frayed ties. Park said she would like the reunions to be held around the Lunar New Year holiday later this month, a traditional time in Korea for family gatherings. Park also said she would increase humanitarian aid to the North and expand the scope of exchange programs.

Last August, the Koreas reached an agreement to hold a new round of the reunions. But weeks later the North unilaterally called off the program, a decision Seoul’s Ministry of Unification described as “inhumane.”

The reunions are bittersweet but vital events, bringing together select family members who haven’t seen one another since the Korean War, which ended in 1953. In the South, some 73,000 people are on the waiting list for the reunions, most of them in their 70s and 80s.

Eighteen such reunions were held between 2000 and 2010, a warmer period of inter-Korean relations. Typically, each reunion brought about 100 people from each side of the border to a mountain resort just north of the demilitarized zone. Without the reunions, long-lost family members in the South have almost no means to reach relatives in the North, since they are barred from placing phone calls or sending mail.

Park said Monday that she was willing to meet with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, but added that the North must show sincerity about improving relations.

“I hope the families who are now aged and have waited over the past 50 years will be able to reunite and find healing for their pain,” Park said.

During a New Year’s Day message, Kim spoke about fostering a “favorable climate” to boost ties. But analysts are skeptical whether the North will follow through. Kim spoke similarly during his New Year’s speech one year ago, just months before the North detonated an underground nuclear device and temporarily pulled its workers from an industrial park jointly operated with the South.

Last month, the North executed Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was thought to be a key adviser to the 30-year-old leader.

With that development, Park said, “the regime has become even more unpredictable.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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