North Korea shelves talks on cross-border reunions

Agence France-Presse
(UPDATED) The North's sudden move came a day after the two Koreas agreed in principle to hold a Red Cross meeting on family reunions

REUNIONS AGAIN SOON? In this file photo, South Korean Lee Jung-Ho (R) meets with his North Korean elder brother Lee Kwae-Seok (L) who joined the South Korean military and was taken prisoner by North Korea during the Korean War, during a separated family reunion meeting at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea 27 September 2009. EPA/Korea pool

SEOUL, South Korea (UPDATED) – North Korea on Thursday, July 11, retracted its proposal to hold talks with South Korea on restarting a family reunion program, after separate discussions on reopening a joint industrial estate faltered.

The North’s sudden move came a day after the two Koreas agreed in principle to hold talks on reunions for hundreds of thousands of families separated since the 1950-53 war.

“In a message sent today to our side, North Korea said it is retracting its proposal in an effort to focus” on discussions on restarting the Kaesong industrial estate, a unification ministry official told AFP.

Pyongyang had proposed that a Red Cross meeting on restarting a temporary family reunion program be held on July 19. It also suggested talks on July 17 about restarting tours by southerners to its Mount Kumgang resort.

The South said it was premature to discuss the Kumgang tours while the Kaesong talks are still going on.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae told a forum Thursday that progress at talks on the estate could help resolve a standoff over the suspended tours.

The Mount Kumgang resort opened in 1998 and once earned the North tens of millions of dollars a year. But Seoul suspended tours by its citizens after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean housewife there in 2008.

Pyongyang accused Seoul of insincerity Wednesday, July 10, after talks on the Kaesong estate, built as a symbol of reconciliation, failed to reach a firm agreement on a restart. But the two sides will meet again next Monday.

The industrial zone, just north of the border, opened in 2004 but shut down three months ago as relations approached crisis point.

At a rare weekend meeting the two sides agreed in principle to reopen the estate, where 53,000 North Koreans worked in 123 Seoul-owned factories producing textiles or light industrial goods.

The North in April withdrew its workers from Kaesong, an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang, citing military tensions and what it called the South’s hostility.

The South now wants firm safeguards from the North against shutting Kaesong down unilaterally, to keep the zone insulated from changes in relations.

This would be a bitter pill for the North to swallow as it means it would accept responsibility for the April closure.

The talks — even though fruitless so far — were a contrast to months of cross-border friction and threats of war by Pyongyang, after its February nuclear test attracted tougher UN sanctions.

On Wednesday So Se-Pyong, the North’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, stated that Pyongyang was ready to hold international talks in a bid to calm regional tensions.

He blamed Washington for stoking strife through military exercises with South Korea but he also struck a conciliatory note on possible future talks.

“We are now ready to have any kind of talks to ease the tensions in the Korean peninsula and to solve any kind of issue, mostly security issues,” the envoy said. –

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