South Korea to push for family reunions during rare talks with North in Panmunjom

A couple stands in front of a military fence at the Imjingak peace park near the Demilitarized Zone DMZ dividing the two Koreas at the border city of Paju on Jan 8, 2018.
A couple stands in front of a military fence at the Imjingak peace park near the Demilitarized Zone DMZ dividing the two Koreas at the border city of Paju on Jan 8, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korea will try to seek discussions on how to ease tensions and resume reunions of separated families during inter-Korean talks set for Tuesday (Jan 9) as it attempts to push the rare dialogue beyond the Winter Olympics.

The two estranged neighbours are slated to meet for the first time in two years - at 10am (9am Singapore time) at the truce village of Panmunjom on the South Korean side of the border.

Many expect the North to send a delegation to the Feb 9-25 Olympics hosted by the South after its leader Kim Jong Un extended a New Year's Day overture offering to do so. The group could include a pair of ice skaters who qualified for the Games but did not register in time to compete.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon, who is heading South Korea's five-member delegation for the talks, has said its main focus would be the Olympics next month.

"We will listen to what North Korea says and make efforts towards enabling them to participate in the games," he told reporters on Monday.

But he added that the South Korean government would also raise the issue of family reunions, tensions on the peninsula and inter-Korea ties.

Ties between North and South Korea have been frozen since late 2015, as Seoul has sided with its main security ally, the United States, against a recent spate of nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang. In its most recent test on Nov 29, the North Korean regime fired its biggest and most powerful missile.

But hopes of reconciliation rose after the Seoul government, which is keen on rapprochement, embraced Mr Kim's overture and began preparing for joint activities with the North during the Olympics such as marching as a unified team during the opening and closing ceremonies or having a single cheering squad.

 
 

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha said at the launch of a Olympics task force yesterday that North Korea's participation in the Olympics would strengthen the profile of the games as a "Peace Olympics".

Separately, South Korea's top nuclear envoy Lee Do Hoon and his Japanese counterpart Kenji Kanasugi agreed in a meeting in Seoul to try and capitalise on the goodwill generated by the inter-Korea talks.

Some experts remain sceptical about Pyongyang's latest move, believing that it's aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

They have warned that the North may put forward unreasonable demands like a moratorium in joint US-South Korea military drills. The annual drills, originally conducted early in the year, have been postponed until after the Games.

Dr Go Myong Hyun of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank, however, said North Korea would probably "not come out too strongly" during the talks.

"North Korea has just made a dramatic turn in strategic direction. It's not going to push things too far and break the negotiations," he told The Straits Times.