South Korea Proposes Talks to Reunite Families Divided by War

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SEOUL, South Korea -- President Park Geun-hye of South Korea said Thursday that South and North Korea should resume arranging reunions of families separated by the Korean War six decades ago, and she renewed a proposal to build an "international peace park" straddling their heavily armed border.

Ms. Park's conciliatory overtures came a day after the Koreas agreed to reopen an idled joint industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, a deal indicating that they were moving toward a thaw after months of tensions this year. The Kaesong agreement also appeared to give impetus to Ms. Park's "trustpolitik" policy, which calls for building trust with the North as a foundation for more serious negotiations on ending the North's nuclear weapons programs in exchange for helping the country rebuild its economy.

"South and North Korea must leave mistrust and confrontation behind and open the door for a new era of peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula," Ms. Park said in her nationally televised speech on Thursday, in observance of the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule with the end of World War II. "If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program, we can open a new era on the peninsula."

The two Koreas have restarted governmental dialogue in recent weeks, after tensions on the divided peninsula over the North's nuclear program this year raised fears of a worsening confrontation between the longtime enemies. As North Korea has pulled back from particularly incendiary threats, however, it appeared to allow Ms. Park to revert cautiously to the more conciliatory stance she took before taking office.

Ms. Park, a conservative, promised during her presidential campaign last year to take something of a middle course on North Korea: more demanding than the liberal governments that never succeeded in getting North Korea to pull back from the nuclear program despite years of aid and investment, but less strict than her immediate predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who had curtailed trade and aid shipments in retaliation against the North's nuclear program and other provocations. But just before Ms. Park took office, the North's new young leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered his country's third nuclear test in defiance of international warnings, leading her to take a stronger stance.

Despite the moves in recent weeks by both sides to ease tensions, relations between the two countries have a history of abrupt reversals, and if the North reacts angrily to joint South Korea-United States military exercises later this month, it could easily set back any advances.

In announcing her proposals Thursday, Ms. Park suggested that reunions of separated families be held around the autumn holiday of Chuseok on Sept. 19, traditionally a time for family gatherings in both Koreas. So far, North Korea has not responded.

Since the division of Korea in 1945 and the Korean War of 1950-53, which ended in a stalemate, millions of Koreans have been separated from family members across the border, with no direct mail service or telephone links. Family reunions have been a highly emotional issue, as many aging Koreans who lived through the war have died without seeing their relatives again.

A series of family reunions was held during a period of inter-Korean reconciliation between 1998 and 2008, but there have been none since 2010, with relations between the Koreas having soured in recent years.

Last month, North Korea proposed talks to arrange more family reunions. But it withdrew the offer after the South rejected a separate proposal to discuss resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain, a program that ended in 2008 after North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean tourist.

The South says it will discuss resuming that jointly operated tourism project only if the North apologizes for the killing of the tourist. Many South Korean conservatives also oppose the tourism program itself, which had served as an important source of hard currency for the North Korean government.

Ms. Park first proposed an international peace park inside the two-and-a-half-mile-wide demilitarized zone in May, during a speech before the United States Congress. The zone, a neutral area bisecting the Korean Peninsula that was created to keep the rival Korean armies apart after the war, is guarded on both sides by minefields, barbed wire, tank traps and two million battle-ready troops.

"The standoff around the DMZ has the potential to endanger global peace. We must defuse that danger," Ms. Park said in her speech in May, urging Washington to join in the creation of such a park. "The demilitarized zone must live up to its name, a zone that strengthens the peace, not undermines it."

Her government has yet to reveal details of her plan, and North Korea has yet to respond.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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