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Koreas Agree on More Family Reunions - 2001-11-13

North and South Korea have reached an agreement to hold a new round of family reunions next month, as part of their difficult path to reconciliation. Many in South Korea are viewing the breakthrough with more suspicion than joy.

After five days of tense negotiations to resume contact between communist North Korea and South Korea, the Unification Ministry in Seoul says the two sides have agreed to hold the fourth round of inter-Korean family reunions, starting December 10.

Like this round of ministerial talks, the reunions are scheduled to take place in the remote North Korean resort of Kumgang. But the reunions will not be held simultaneously in South Korea, as in previous times.

The Seoul government appears to have agreed to the new terms after Pyongyang backed down from its demand that Seoul lifts its nationwide security alert in order to resume the ministerial talks. The alert against terrorism was put in place after the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Pyongyang has complained that the alert is primarily aimed at North Korea, which remains technically at war with the South nearly 50 years after the fighting ended in 1953. North Korea cited the security alert when it postponed last month's scheduled family reunions in Seoul and Pyongyang.

But the decision to hold the reunions only in North Korea is already being criticized in the South. The South Korean media say the deal runs the risk of being seen as an acceptance of the North's view that the South is dangerous while the North is safe.

Political analyst Chun Hong-chan at Pusan National University in South Korea says many people in the South are also unhappy with the continuing conciliatory approach of the government toward a belligerent and an uncooperative neighbor. "I think many [South] Korean people may wonder what the South Korean government may have conceded in exchange for the reunion agreement," Chun continues. "The concession this time will only reinforce the criticism of the Korean government, that this engagement policy will not bring about tangible rewards."

Earlier reunions, held between last August and February, featured emotional visits to rival capitals by elderly family members, divided for over half a century by communism and war on the Korean peninsula.

The visits were seen as one of the most positive outcomes of the June 2000 historic inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. But relations stalled early this year after Pyongyang protesting the Bush administrations' North Korea policy postponed all talks.