South and North Korea family reunion date fails to dispel wariness
Deal between Pyongyang, Seoul overshadowed by US war games in region
North and South Korea agreed yesterday to hold a reunion later this month for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War - the first such event for more than three years.
Officials from both sides, meeting in the border truce village of Panmunjom, decided the reunion would be held from February 20-25 at the North's Mount Kumgang resort, the South's Unification Ministry said.
The agreement marks a small sign of progress between the two rivals who, in recent years, have struggled to co-operate on even the most basic trust-building measures. However, both sides have been here before.
The two Koreas had agreed to hold a reunion last September but, even as the chosen relatives prepared to make their way to Mount Kumgang, Pyongyang cancelled the event just four days before its scheduled start, citing "hostility" from the South.
And there are widespread concerns that the families could end up being disappointed again this time around.
South Korea is due to begin joint military exercises with the United States at the end of February, and North Korea has warned of dire consequences should they go ahead.
The annual drills are always a diplomatic flashpoint on the Korean peninsula, and last year resulted in an unusually extended period of heightened military tension.
Yoo Ho-yeol, professor of North Korean Studies at Seoul's Korea University, predicted that the North would use the reunion as a bargaining chip.
"Rather than cancelling the event again, it may try to extract concessions, like a scaling down of the joint military exercises, or an easing of South Korean sanctions," Yoo said.
Millions of Koreans were separated by the war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.
Because the Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.
Up to 73,000 South Koreans are on a waiting list for a chance to take part in one of the reunion events, which select only a few hundred participants at a time.
The reunion programme began in earnest in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited. But the programme was suspended in 2010 following the North's shelling of a South Korean border island.
Pyongyang is also pushing for a resumption of six-party talks on its nuclear programme - a long-stalled process involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has been on a charm offensive, making a series of conciliatory gestures that critics have largely dismissed.
Four members of the US Congress have sent a letter to Kim Jong-un urging him to release imprisoned American missionary Kenneth Bae.
"You have done the right thing by releasing a fellow Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, to return home ... you would be making further progress on the humanitarian front by freeing Kenneth Bae to reunite with his family," stated the letter.
Bae, 45, has been held for more than a year after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for trying to overthrow the state.