Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Koreas agree to hold family reunion talks Friday

South Korean Lee Bok-sun, 85, is carried by her North Korean brother, Ri Myung Sun, 68, during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting in North Korea.

Officials from South Korea’s Red Cross will meet with their counterparts in the North Korean town of Gaeseong Friday to discuss details of the reunion of separated families. 

The working-level meeting was agreed on after the North accepted the South’s offer to meet for a discussion on the matter, hours after the proposal was made.

The Ministry of Unification said the North notified it in a written statement that a two-man delegation from each side will meet at the venue. 

The North’s prompt response was construed as meaning that it was ready for the meeting. 

Earlier, the Red Cross announced that it will provide rice and cement to help North Korea recover from recent floods, and proposed holding talks later this week on the reunion of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The aid, worth 10 billion won ($8.6 million), includes 5,000 tons of rice and 10,000 tons of cement, Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha said in a press conference. If everything goes as planned, both the reunion of families and the shipment of the aid package will likely take place in one month, Yoo said.

Despite its non-governmental nature, the Red Cross has a unique function as the South Korean government’s main channel for communication with the North, especially when it comes to humanitarian cooperation. The organization is believed to keep its policy toward North Korea in sync with the Ministry of Unification.

The announcement came after North Korea’s Red Cross proposed the reunion talks over the weekend. It had requested rice, cement and heavy equipment such as excavators earlier this month.

When asked how they would monitor aid distribution, Yoo refused to answer. The issue of monitoring has been a thorny question in aid discussions in the South.

Some lawmakers and critics say that the aid will end up strengthening the North’s military. A North Korean defector in China was quoted last week by Radio Free Asia as saying the food aid will only be given to soldiers.

Hoping to arrange the family reunions on a regular basis, Yoo said South Korea will bring up the idea at the working-level meeting in Gaeseong.

“Out of 120,000 registered separated family members, only 80,000 are still alive. Even those alive are quite old, and could pass away anytime soon,” he said, emphasizing the importance of permanent reunions.

The resort facility at Mt. Geumgang is the only facility that has the capacity of hosting reunions in the North, the Red Cross chief said.

The unusual request from Pyongyang, made one day before the arrival of Stephen W. Bosworth, the U.S. top envoy on North Korea, is seen by many observers as a reconciliatory gesture. Bosworth had a stopover in Seoul on a regional trip to discuss the resumption of the stalled six-party denuclearization talks. In what appeared to be another conciliatory gesture, North Korea released the South Korean fishing boat Daeseungho 55 and its seven crewmembers last week.

The move generated responses from Seoul, which has maintained a cold attitude toward the North, especially after the sinking of the naval vessel Cheonan.

President Lee Myung-bak told a Russian television network last week that his administration could set up a second joint industrial park in North Korea if certain conditions were met.

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