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S. Korea Urges North to Allow Family Reunions

South Korean protesters shout slogans as they hold national flags during a press conference against abrupt cancellation by North Korea of planned reunions for families separated by the Korean War, Sept. 23, 2013.
South Korean protesters shout slogans as they hold national flags during a press conference against abrupt cancellation by North Korea of planned reunions for families separated by the Korean War, Sept. 23, 2013.
South Korea is urging North Korea not to back out of planned reunions this week of aging families separated by the Korean War. Pyongyang on Saturday announced it was indefinitely postponing the meetings because of what it called a confrontational attitude from Seoul.

South Korea's Unification Ministry on Monday called for North Korea to allow scheduled inter-Korean family reunions to go forward.

The meetings, between relatives divided since the Korean War, have not been held since 2010 because of political and military tension.

An ease in tensions led the two Koreas to agree in August to resume the reunions this week.

Through the Red Cross, they exchanged lists of about 100 families on each side. But on Saturday, Pyongyang abruptly called-off the event.

Kim Eyi-do, a Unification Ministry spokesman, said North Korea should rapidly respond to their call for holding the family reunion event to cure the pain and scars of separated families.

The ministry called Pyongyang's unilateral postponement of the reunions deeply regrettable and inhumane. It noted the urgency of reuniting aging family members, noting three participants had to cancel due to health while one other died.

Less than 60 percent of the 129,000 South Koreans registered as having family in the North are still alive.

And more than 70 percent of surviving families are aged 70 or older.

Lee Ki-sook, 81, said she could not help but cry when the reunion with her family was called off.

She said she feels very sad and can hardly talk about it. She was going to meet her niece, the daughter of her older brother. She said she bought many gifts.

Ninety-two-year-old Park Woon-hyung said he has been waiting 60 years and can wait a few more months.

He does not think the reunions are halted forever and hopes the reunions resume within a month. He said it comforts him that he confirmed the person who he wants to meet is alive. His brother, youngest sister and himself are alive, and he heard that his daughter is alive there too. He said he is satisfied to hear that even though he could not meet them.

Lee Sang-nam said while her hopes were dashed for a family reunion she really worries about her 88-year-old mother.

She said her mother feels more despair than herself. She is extremely disappointed as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may go away. She wishes her mother to meet their relatives as soon as possible because she is worried. They are very old and get sick easily, she said, and she is also worried about her mother's health.

Kim Seong-keun is Director of the Korea Red Cross's International and Inter-Korean Bureau. He said North Korea has postponed reunions before (in 2000, 2001 and 2007) but later resumed them.

He said many divided families are in despair, it is a regrettable situation and they think that the families need consolation. He said they called all the families Saturday and Sunday to tell them the news.

North Korea's state media blamed their decision to call off the reunions on Seoul, which it said loudly took credit for improved inter-Korean relations while mocking and provoking Pyongyang.

In South Korea, there are suspicions the North’s suspension is a negotiating tactic aimed at tying the reunions to a push to resume lucrative tourism to Mount Kumgang.

Lee Sang-cheol is chairman of the Ten Thousand Divided Families Committee. He says Pyongyang only raises the possibility of reunions when there is a political problem.

He said the issue of reunions of divided families is a humanitarian matter. He thinks it was North Korea’s idea to connect the divided families reunions and the Mount Kumgang tour. He said North Korea is acting against filial piety and they condemn the action.

Visitation to the North's resort area has been halted since 2008, when a soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who wandered into a restricted area.

Cash-starved Pyongyang had sought to include Mount Kumgang tourism along with negotiations for the family reunions and the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But Seoul has insisted on keeping the inter-Korean factory project in North Korea, and reunions, separated from the tourism issue.

Pyongyang unilaterally suspended the Kaesong factory operations in April, but they resumed last week after months of talks.

The negotiations on resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang were scheduled for October 2, but Pyongyang has postponed them.

VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim and Korean Service reporter Do Sung-Min contributed to this report