SEOUL, Dec. 17 (Korea Bizwire) – South Korea won’t accept North Korea’s demands simply to achieve its goal of regular reunions for families separated in the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul’s point man on Pyongyang said Thursday.
Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo was referring to Pyongyang’s demand that the two sides resume a long-stalled tour program to a scenic North Korean mountain resort before talks on regular reunions begin.
“I feel bad for the separated families, but we can’t break principles that have to be kept,” he said during a panel discussion organized by the Kwanhun Club, a fraternity of senior journalists.
South Korea halted the tours in 2008 after one of its citizens was shot dead by a North Korean soldier.
North Korea has since repeatedly pressed South Korea to resume the tours to Mount Kumgang, a legitimate source of hard currency for the cash-strapped country. However, it has yet to comply with Seoul’s demand for responsible measures to ensure the safety of South Korean tourists there.’
The dispute was at the center of the high-level inter-Korean talks that ended Saturday with no agreements or plans for further talks.
“Even if it means we have to seek the understanding of the separated families, I don’t think it’s wise to just agree on an exchange over an issue that could be an important touchstone for the safety of our people and in leading inter-Korean ties over the long term,” Hong said.
About 66,000 South Koreans have family members in the North, and half of them have formally expressed their wishes to confirm whether or not their relatives are alive.
The two Koreas have held 20 rounds of family reunions at Mount Kumgang since the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. But many South Korean families who have taken part in the events have expressed despair that they may never be able to meet their separated relatives again.
“Our government wanted to hold extensive and serious talks on the issue of the separated families and other various projects where practical cooperation is possible,” Hong said. “The North, however, strongly insisted that we first agree on the resumption of tours to Mount Kumgang, so we weren’t able to reach a meaningful agreement.”
He also reiterated the government’s stance that it is open to an inter-Korean summit, but only if it will be conducive to reconciliation and a resolution of pending issues.
On Seoul’s economic sanctions on Pyongyang, known as the May 24 measures, Hong said the government has clearly indicated its willingness to resolve the issue through dialogue.
South Korea halted nearly all cross-border trade in retaliation for the North’s deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010.
“Our government has clearly said that there should be responsible steps taken by the North,” he said, referring to Seoul’s demands for an apology and assurances against a recurrence from Pyongyang. “I don’t think the May 24 measures are the main factor blocking South-North dialogue.”
A South Korean-led international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed the vessel and killed 46 South Korean sailors, although Pyongyang has denied responsibility.
The minister vowed to continue efforts to improve ties with the North.
“We won’t be affected at every turn, but we will try to sustain the momentum for the development of South-North ties that was gained through the Aug. 25 deal,” he said.
Last week’s talks were an outcome of the Aug. 25 inter-Korean agreement that defused heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula following a land-mine blast at the border blamed on the North.
Relations between North Korea and China, meanwhile, are expected to worsen after the North’s propaganda band Moranbong abruptly canceled a concert in Beijing last week, Hong said.