North Korea on Sunday accepted a proposal by South Korea to hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss resuming cross-border reunions of families separated by the Korean War, but at the same time it suggested holding talks on Wednesday over the stalled package tours to the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang resort. But the government here is determined to approach the two issues separately.
North Korea did not expressly attach the resumption of the lucrative package tours as a prerequisite for cross-border reunions. But the fact that it proposed the talks take place a day before the meeting about the reunions smells of extortion. This is not the first time that the North has tried to use the family reunions to extract other concessions from the South.
Over the 10 years since tours to Mt. Kumgang began in 1998, North Korea earned more than US$10 million a year from the venture. But the tours were halted in July of 2008 after the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean sentry there. North Korea has since then refused to apologize for the incident and promise safety guarantees, which Seoul has demanded to resume the tours. After hearing President Park Geun-hye's offer on Liberation Day last week to talk about cross-border family reunions, Pyongyang may have thought that it would be a convenient time to throw in the Mt. Kumgang tours as part of a package deal.
But North Korea must learn that it can no longer attach strings to the reunions, because they are a purely humanitarian issue and must not be linked to political or economic interests.
The two Koreas stated clearly in their latest agreement about the Kaesong Industrial Complex that the operation of the joint industrial complex will not be affected by any political or economic circumstances. In South Korea, 56,000 of the 128,800 people with family members in the North have died already before getting to see them again even for a brief moment. And 80 percent of the remaining 72,000 are over 70 and around half of them are over 80. Time is not on their side.
If North Korea accepts South Korea's proposal to hold regular cross-border reunions and allow the exchange of letters between family members, the whole world would be able to sense positive changes in the North.
That could in turn pave the way for the tour business to resume. It is still not too late for the North to apologize for the shooting and guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists. The tours can only resume when the South Korean government feels it is safe to send people there.