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South Korea offers olive branch to North with proposal for border talks

A South Korea soldier stands guard in May at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the two Koreas.

AARON KIDD/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s new government proposed rare talks with the North on easing border tensions and holding family reunions, offering an olive branch despite rising tensions over the communist state’s nuclear weapons program.

Seoul wants to hold a meeting Friday at a North Korean building called Tongilgak in the truce village of Panmunjom aimed at halting “all acts of hostility” near the Military Demarcation Line that divides the peninsula, the defense ministry said Monday.

It asked Pyongyang to respond via an inter-Korean hotline, which was cut off by the North last year. A senior ministry official, Suh Choo-suk, read the statement.

He did not specify agenda items or say who would participate in the talks. But officials and experts suggested South Korea would likely raise complaints about propaganda broadcasts and leaflets, while the North could be expected to reiterate its demand for an end to joint U.S.-South Korean war games.

If held, it would be the first high-level talks between the Koreas since December 2015, when the sides met in a failed effort to build on an agreement to end an armed border confrontation in the fall of that year.

Separately, South Korea asked the Red Cross to deliver a proposal to reopen talks on resuming reunions during a key fall holiday known as Chuseok for relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The acting Red Cross chief, Kim Sun-hyang, said the talks would be held on Aug. 1 at Panmunjom, which is in the buffer zone between the countries.

The topic of family reunions - last held in October 2015 - is highly sensitive for aging survivors of the war. The Unification Ministry said it has about 130,000 South Korean applicants for such meetings on file, but only 60,000 of those are alive.

North Korea, which usually communicates via state-run media, has not publicly responded to either proposal.

So far, North Korea has rebuffed Moon’s overtures, with its leader vowing his nation would never put its weapons programs up for negotiations a day after launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4.

Pyongyang also has in the past tied the idea of resuming family reunions to Seoul’s return of North Korean defectors.

Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Seoul-based Korea National Diplomatic Academy, expressed doubt that the talks proposed Monday would lead to a breakthrough since North Korea has made clear it’s not interested in denuclearization and President Donald Trump’s administration is moving forward with sanctions.

“But I’m not sure if North/South Korea dialogue could be an important trigger point that could change the mood,” he said.

The Koreas have largely been on speaking terms since the latest crisis broke out in January 2016 when the North conducted its fourth nuclear test, which was followed by a fifth in September and dozens of missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban its use of ballistic technology.

Ousted President Park Geun-hye, who is facing trial over an influence-peddling and corruption scandal, refused any ties with Pyongyang unless it abandoned its nuclear ambitions.

Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights attorney, came to office following a snap election in May promising a softer approach including restarting humanitarian aid and exchanges, which threatens to put his administration at odds with its U.S. ally.

Moon expressed willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “anytime, anywhere” shortly after taking office on May 10.

And he reiterated his call for dialogue earlier this month in Berlin, laying out a five-point plan aimed at reconciliation with the North that included signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement and guaranteeing the regime’s security in return for denuclearization.

"We can never allow a war on the Korean Peninsula ever again. And that is the reason we must seek to resolve the issue through dialogue and peaceful means, though it is imperative that the international community further increase its pressure and impose strong sanctions,” Moon said.

China, which is under pressure by the Trump administration to do more to rein in its communist ally, welcomed the offer, according to Yonhap News Agency.

“We hope that the two Koreas will make efforts to break the stalemate and create conditions for a resumption of negotiations,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang was quoted as saying at a press briefing.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

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