The two Koreas moved a step closer on Monday to resuming reunions for families separated by the Korean war, although final agreement could be derailed by a row over South Korea-US military drills.
After weeks of back-and-forth, and a period of silence from North Korea, the two rivals finally settled on a date for preparatory talks to set up a reunion event at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort.
Pyongyang on Monday offered talks on February 5 or 6, and Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it had chosen the Wednesday.
The working-level meeting will be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom where the armistice ending the 1950-53 conflict was signed.
“We welcome that the North has finally come forward to discuss the reunion,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters.
“Given the urgency of the matter, we will make preparations to hold the reunion as soon as possible,” Kim said.
The “urgency” refers to the fact that, 60 years after the war ended, many of those who experienced the division of their families have died, and most of those that survive are in advanced old age.
In a surprise move that coincided with a series of other apparently conciliatory gestures, North Korea offered last month to host a reunion event and asked South Korea to pick the dates.
Seoul quickly proposed February 17-21, but given the time that has since elapsed that schedule now looks optimistic.
The reunion programme began in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit. Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.
If the Mount Kumgang gathering goes ahead, it would be the first reunion since 2010 when the programme was suspended following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island.
A reunion with around 100 people from each side had been planned last September but Pyongyang cancelled at the last minute, citing unspecified South Korean “hostility”.
There are concerns it may do the same this time around, given Pyongyang’s strident demands that South Korea cancel annual military exercises with the United States that are scheduled to kick off at the end of February.
Seoul has made it clear the annual drills, which are routinely condemned by the North as provocative rehearsals for invasion, will go ahead.
Last year, Washington put on a show of military might for the exercises, deploying nuclear-capable stealth bombers and an attack submarine in response to sabre-rattling by North Korea.
US military officials have indicated the drill will be scaled back this year – with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers – in an apparent effort to mollify Pyongyang.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry may add a Seoul trip to his itinerary when he visits China later this month for talks that will include the thorny issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
“I will be in China in two weeks working on the North Korean issue, working with Korea, Japan, reunification...,” Kerry told a security conference in Munich on Saturday.
The North has played hawk and dove in recent weeks, one day threatening the South with an “unimaginable holocaust” if the joint drills go ahead, and the next announcing a unilateral moratorium on cross-border verbal mud-slinging and proposing trust-building measures on the disputed maritime border.
Seoul has branded the conciliatory gestures “deceptive” and many in South Korea are sceptical that the North will allow the proposed reunion to go ahead.
Jeung Young-tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the families should avoid getting their hopes up a second time.
“They will need to be patient given the potential obstacles down the road, and considering past actions by the North,” said Jeung, who accused Pyongyang of using the reunion offer as a bargaining chip.
“It is such a mean strategy given the suffering of separated families in both Koreas,” he said.
North Korea wants the South to resume regular tours to Mount Kumgang which had provided a much-needed source of hard currency in the past.
South Korea suspended the tours after a woman tourist was shot dead by security guards in 2008, and it has repeatedly rejected the North’s efforts to link their resumption to the family reunion issue.