North and South Korea were set to hold talks on Wednesday for resuming reunions for families separated by the Korean War — an emotive issue that Pyongyang has been accused of exploiting as a bargaining chip.
The meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom — where the armistice ending the 1950-53 conflict was signed — aims to set a date for what would be the first such reunion event since 2010.
Agreement would be seen as a small sign of progress between the two rivals who, in recent years, have struggled to cooperate on even the most basic trust-building measures.
But both sides have been here before. Similar talks between the North and South Korean Red Cross in August last year concluded with an agreement to hold a reunion the following month for several hundred divided family members.
With the selection process completed and the chosen relatives preparing to gather at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort, Pyongyang cancelled the event just four days before its scheduled start, citing “hostility” from the South.
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, despite warnings from North Korea 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 tensions.
If Wednesday’s talks do end with agreement, any reunion event is likely to be scheduled for after the drills, leaving it vulnerable to the intervening tensions the exercises are bound to create.
The Panmunjom meeting itself was only arranged after weeks of back-and-forth, following North Korea’s surprise offer last month to resume the reunions.
Sixty years after the war ended, many of those who suffered the division of their families have died. Most of those still living are in advanced old age.
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.
The programme was suspended in 2010 following the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island. North Korea also 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.