Hope for inter-Korean family reunions lingers despite Pyongyang's latest snub on dialogue

A South Korean family look at ribbons on the freedom bridge symbolizing the division of Korea into North and South on Imjingak near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, Gyeonggi-do. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War are continuing to file applications for the possible inter-Korean reunion event, despite North Korea's silence on South Korea's offer to hold military and Red Cross talks.

On July 17, the Moon Jae In administration suggested inter-Korean military talks and a separate Red Cross meeting at the truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarised Zone.

Pyongyang rejected the offer for talks with silence, refusing to confirm the meeting Seoul hoped to hold on July 21.

However, the meeting between the two Koreas' respective Red Cross officials on Aug 1 remains scheduled and, if the meeting materialises, it is expected to act as a key to reviving cross-border reunion events. The events were indefinitely halted in 2015.

Amid North Korea's cold shoulder, several South Korean citizens are holding out hope to meet their relatives in the North.

"We received three new applications from July 17-21, following the current administration's offer to hold a Red Cross meeting with North Korea," a South Korean Red Cross official said on July 23. "We also sent seven more application forms to family members who requested them after the announcement of the talks offer - they are expected to apply by mail."

The South Korean government urged the North to respond swiftly after the military talks failed, but said it would remain patient with the process.

"It's necessary for us to make step-by-step efforts in a calm manner. We expect the North's swift, positive response," deputy ministry spokesman Lee Eugene said during a press briefing on July 21, stressing that there is no deadline for cross-border dialogue.

But luring Pyongyang back to the negotiation table is forecast to be a time-sensitive task for Seoul, with the physically frail state of the remaining war-torn family members in South Korea.

According to the Ministry of Unification, out of 131,200 South Korean family members registered in a government database, only 60,513 are alive as of 2017.

There are 70,687 deceased members on the rolls, which amounts to 53.9 per cent of registered applicants. About 62.6 per cent of the remaining population is over 80 years old and, in June, 258 members passed away.

North Korea's state-owned newspaper Rodong Sinmun said on July 20 that it is nonsense for Seoul to hope to improve inter-Korean relations while supporting sanctions against Pyongyang simultaneously.

Pyongyang has also demanded the return of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to South Korea in 2016, claiming they were abducted against their will.

While South Korea hopes for improved inter-Korean relations, the situation faced by North Koreans eyeing to escape continues to deteriorate.

A North Korean family of five attempting to defect to South Korea via China took their own lives when captured and questioned by Chinese police, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The father of the family was a 50-year-old former district executive and is believed to have possessed poisonous substances upon entering the Chinese border, said Mr Ahn Chan Il, head of the Seoul-based World North Korea Research Centre.

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