their older brother from North Korea
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
North Korea rejected a proposal from Seoul for working-level Red Cross talks to resolve the issue of divided North and South Korean families. The decision came on Mar. 6, one day after the proposal was made.
Telephone notice was sent that morning through the liaison officer in Panmunjeom, with a message in the name of North Korea’s Red Cross central committee chairman stating that the “environment and atmosphere for inter-Korean working-level Red Cross talks to discuss the divided family issue is not currently in place,” the Ministry of Unification reported.
“In view of the current relationship between North and South, major humanitarian issues such as scheduling regular divided family reunions are not of a kind that can be solved through inter-Korean Red Cross talks,” it added.
The message made it clear that Pyongyang does not feel humanitarian issues like divided families can be discussed with South Korea while it is holding joint military exercises with the US, and that if the issue is addressed at a later date, discussions would have to be held at a higher level - allowing for discussions on a greater range of issues - rather than at lower tier Red Cross talks.
In its rejection of the proposal, North Korea took issue with the timing and framework of dialogue, indicating that the divided family issue could not be discussed at a time when joint military exercises with the US are under way and South Korean groups are distributing leaflets criticizing the regime in Pyongyang. It also objected to the format of working-level Red Cross dialogue. Both objections had been anticipated, raising the question of whether Seoul’s offer was fully thought out or sincere.
In particular, the message’s statement about the “environment and atmosphere” not being in place for discussions was seen as a reference to military tensions on the peninsula, with South Korea’s military exercises with the US and North Korea’s missile exercises in response. A statement from the North Korean National Defense Commission also took issue with the Mar. 4 distribution of leaflets in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, and Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, by North Korean Christian Alliance, a South Korean civic group. Pyongyang’s position seems to be that Seoul’s failure to stop the leaflets from being distributed violates an agreement reached at high-level talks, where both sides pledged a “halt to slander.”
A more practical reason for rejecting the South Korean offer was the dialogue format. North Korea views the proposed framework of working-level Red Cross talks as too limited to discuss a fundamental resolution to the divided family issue.
Its position seems to be that nothing would come of such discussions, given the limited authority of the officials participating on both sides and the fact that a resolution on the issue is unlikely even if the participants put all their cards of the table. Indeed, some South Korean government insiders had raised doubts the day before, calling the format “too narrow” for the issue to be discussed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government official said the offer had been made, despite the high risk of a rejection, because of the “special nature of the divided family issue.” Seoul’s position at the moment is that the issue is a humanitarian endeavor that should not be linked to other issues. In particular, it has no plans to link reunions with food and fertilizer aid or the resumption of tourism to Mt. Keumgang, as past administrations had. From this standpoint, it sees the idea of proposing high-level talks, allowing for political discussions, as a sign of inconsistency.
But this position may already appear inconsistent. In particular, a political exchange already happened in mid-February when South Korea agreed to the reunions and the mutual moratorium on slander at high-level talks with North Korea.
“The divided family issue already became a political issue rather than a purely humanitarian one at those high-level talks,” said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.
There are also questions of whether Seoul is really committed to resolving the issue at all. The argument is that for all of President Park Geun-hye’s recent talks about a “fundamental resolution,” the South Korean government would have made a much more realistic offer if it was truly committed to achieving one.
“There seems to be a lack of sincerity from the South Korean government when it comes to resolving the divided family issue,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Demanding a resolution to the issue is something of a no-risk move for Seoul, which has nothing to lose politically if North Korea agrees or refuses. If it were to make an offer to hold dialogue at a suitable level, only to have it rejected by Pyongyang, anyone without a particular interest in inter-Korean issues would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
For now, Seoul plans to wait for a response from Pyongyang. “We’ve already urged the North to reconsider the working-level Red Cross meeting, so we‘re not planning to make any new offers for the time being,” said a Ministry of Unification official on condition of anonymity.
But with both sides committed to the idea of improving relations, the chances for a high-level meeting live on.
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