North Korea on Thursday rejected an offer by President Park Geun-hye to hold reunions of families separated by the Korean War during the Lunar New Year holidays. "How can the separated family members meet comfortably when shells and bullets are being fired and the South again is bracing for a large-scale joint military exercise" with the U.S., it demanded.
But it added that if the South "has nothing new going on and is willing to discuss our suggestions, we will meet another day in good time."
It is a trademark North Korean move to refuse family reunions citing the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills that take place in February and March each year. But they will take place as long as North Korea presents a significant threat, and should not stand in the way of humanitarian projects like family reunions.
What North Korea really wants is to discuss resumption of package tours to the Mt. Kumgang resort, which were a considerable cash cow for the North until they were halted in 2008. In September last year, North Korea unilaterally cancelled scheduled family reunions just four days before the meeting after Seoul refused to accept demands for talks to resume the Mt. Kumgang tours. At that time, the South proposed holding the family reunions first and discussing the resumption of tours later. But the North remained obstinate.
The reason why the tours to Mt. Kumgang were halted in 2008 was because North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean tourist. The North has never apologized for the murder of a civilian and has refused to come up with guarantees that the atrocity will not be repeated. And it is still trying to squeeze South Korea by holding the family reunions hostage to the resumption of the tours.
Around 128,800 people in South Korea have applied for family reunions, and 56,000 have already died waiting to see their loved ones, even briefly, one last time. Some 72,000 are still waiting, but most of them are in their 80s. All they are asking for is a glimpse of family members they left behind in 1950. The family reunions are a humanitarian matter, and no strings must be attached to them.
North Korea must stop trying to link the two issues together. If it really wants to resume tours to Mt. Kumgang, it should apologize for murdering an innocent South Korean tourist and ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens again.