By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) — North Korea on Thursday rejected South Korea’s proposal to hold reunions of families separated after the Korean War, but hinted that reunions may take place in “a good season.”
The North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said the North could not hold reunions around the Lunar New Year, citing recent military drills in South Korea and its separate joint military exercises with the United States scheduled for between late February and late April.
“Can the separated families and relatives have reunions in peace amid gunfire?” the committee handling inter-Korean affairs said in a message to South Korea’s unification ministry.
The North’s rejection came three days after South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for a resumption of the reunions, one of the highly emotional issues for aging people in the two rival Koreas, around Lunar New Year’s Day.
Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on Jan. 31 this year, is one of the biggest holidays in both Koreas, on which family members and relatives usually gather.
The move also came eight days after the North’s leader Kim Jong-un called for “a favorable climate” to improve inter-Korean ties and pledged to make aggressive efforts for better relations in his New Year’s message.
Still, the North’s committee said that South and North Korea “can sit together in a good season,” if there is “no other thing happening on the South’s side and if the South’s side has intent to discuss the proposals of our side.”
The committee did not elaborate on a specific time frame for family reunions.
South Korea said the North’s demands may refer to Pyongyang’s repeated calls for talks aimed at resuming a tour program to Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on North Korea’s east coast.
South Korea suspended the tours to the mountain resort following the shooting dead of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean guard in 2008. North Korea has since repeatedly called for the resumption of the tour program, which served as one of a few legitimate revenue sources for the cash-strapped country.
Another North Korean demand may be its longstanding demand that South Korea and the U.S. stop their annual joint military exercises, which Pyongyang claims are a rehearsal for a nuclear war against the North.
The U.S fought on South Korea’s side in the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. It keeps about 28,500 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against the North.
The unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed regret to North Korea for linking military drills to a humanitarian issue. It also said family reunions and talks on the North’s mountain resort are two separate issues.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said South Korea will go ahead with its joint military maneuvers with the U.S., noting they are defensive in nature.
Last year, the sides agreed to hold family reunions at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on North Korea’s east coast, but Pyongyang abruptly called them off at the last minute.
The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since their landmark summit in 2000, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the 1950-53 Korean War.
There is no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries that remain divided by a heavily fortified border.
The committee said the North is glad that South Korea has proposed family reunions and said its message “expressed the stance of our side to make efforts for the improvement of the North-South relations in the future, too.”
The unification ministry called on the North to show its sincerity toward the improvement of inter-Korean relations through “its actions, not words.”
South Korea’s rival political parties denounced the North’s response in unison.
“We express deep regret,” Yoo Il-ho, spokesman of the ruling Saenuri Party, said in a press briefing. “It is disappointing that North Korea rejected family reunions, which are a purely humanitarian event separate from politics and ideology, by linking them with the annual joint military drills.”
Yoo also reminded the North that there is no time to lose as the separated families are growing old in age, and he called on Seoul to wait patiently for a positive response from Pyongyang.
Chyung Ho-joon, floor spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, called on both Seoul and Pyongyang to make the reunions happen out of consideration for the separated families.
“There can be no difference in position between the government and the ruling and opposition parties when it comes to the reunions,” he said. “There should also be more active efforts to expand civilian exchanges, including the resumption of tours to Mount Kumgang.”