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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 69 (August 27, 2009)

All Headlines 10:36 August 27, 2009


Two Koreas Hold First Family Reunion Talks in Two Years

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korean Red Cross officials held their first meeting in nearly two years Aug. 26 at a mountain resort in the North to arrange a new round of family reunions in a sign of thawing cross-border relations.

The reunion talks, which go through Red Cross offices on both sides, had been stopped as Pyongyang rejected inter-Korean dialogue. The North's agreement to the three-day talks was the latest in a series of recent conciliatory gestures toward the South.

"Many people are looking forward to reunions with their families north of the border," Kim Young-chel, chief delegate and secretary general of the South Korean Red Cross office, told reporters before departing from Seoul. "We will try to have as many people as possible included in the reunions."

Seoul's three-member delegation traveled to Goseong, South Korea's border town on the east coast, where they will cross the demilitarized zone through an inter-Korean land route there to arrive at the North's transit office at around 3:30 p.m., officials said. The talks started at 5 p.m. at the North's Mount Kumgang resort, the customary venue for the reunions.

The dialogue, the first in 21 months, follows an agreement North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reached with Hyun Jeong-eun, chief of South Korea's Hyundai Group, to boost joint ventures and resume suspended reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war. The accord suggests holding the reunions on the traditional Korean holiday of Chuseok, which falls on Oct. 3 this year.

In another major fence-mending move, North Korea dispatched a high-level delegation to pay its respects to late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung last week. North Korean media have since stopped describing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in derogatory terms such as "traitor."

Arranged by the Red Cross, the reunions started in August 2000 as an outcome of the historic first inter-Korean summit earlier that year. They were last held in October 2007, but stopped after political relations chilled with last year's inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak, who linked inter-Korean relations to progress in Pyongyang's denuclearization.

The two Koreas have held 16 rounds of face-to-face reunions and seven rounds of video reunions so far, temporarily bringing together tens of thousands of separated family members. About 600,000 South Koreans are believed to have relatives in North Korea. Normally, about 100 South Koreans are selected for each reunion.

Officials expect no major problems in setting the date and number of participating families, but a major roadblock could be the issue of Korean War prisoners and other South Koreans believed to have been held by the North during the Cold War era. South Korea has pushed to include those missing citizens in family reunions, while North Korea has opposed the idea. "Those are humanitarian issues. We will continue to express our opinion," the chief delegate said.

Watchers also expect that during the talks, North Korea may demand the resumption of the suspended tourism project to Mount Kumgang, a source of cash for the country currently under U.N. sanctions. Seoul suspended the tour in July last year after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist who strayed into an off-limits military zone. Seoul has not yet moved to resume the tour.

Separately, South Korea called for the early release of four fishermen who have been held in the North since their boat strayed into North Korean waters in the East Sea on July 30.

Seoul pressed for an update on the crew through the recently restored inter-Korean hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom, and a North Korean official responded positively, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.


North Korea Lifts Border Traffic Bans on South Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Aug. 20 it completely normalized cross-border traffic for South Korean workers and cargo trains, lifting bans it has imposed since December to protest Seoul's hardline policy toward Pyongyang.

The announcement was the latest in a series of recent conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang. Days earlier, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il agreed to "energize" inter-Korean projects in a meeting with a South Korean business leader.

In a faxed message, North Korea announced it will "withdraw the important measure taken on Dec. 1 with regard to the land passage over the Military Demarcation Line as of Aug. 21," Seoul's Unification Ministry said in an emailed statement.

The North sent a more detailed note hours later, saying South Korean workers' border trips and cargo train service "will be restored to the way they were" before the Dec. 1 measure.

Protesting the Lee Myung-bak government's conservative stance, North Korea took a string of retaliatory measures that mainly affected South Korean businesses operating at a joint park in the North's border town of Kaesong.

It cut off train cargo service, which was reconnected in 2007, more than five decades after it was severed during the Korean War, to transport materials to the joint park. The North also drastically reduced the number of times South Koreans and their cargo trucks could cross the border to three times a day. The number of South Koreans allowed to stay in Kaesong was cut to 880, and hundred of others were forced to leave or visit with daily permits.

Such restrictions strained business activity at the Kaesong industrial park, where more than 100 South Korean firms operate with about 40,000 North Korean workers. The joint park opened in 2004 as an outcome of the historic first inter-Korean summit between then President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.

North Korea said the new measure is effective from Aug. 21, but Seoul officials expected its implementation may take a few days due to "technical issues" governing border traffic.

South Korean companies operating in the joint industrial park welcomed North Korea's measure, saying they expect Pyongyang to take more measures to help their operations go smoothly.

"We had a lot of difficulty trying to run factories with the minimum workforce allowed to stay," said Yoo Chang-geun, vice chairman of the Kaesong Business Council that represents South Korean firms at the joint park. "When this measure comes into effect, we'll have an opportunity to restore buyer confidence."

North Korea also said it will restore a Red Cross contact channel at the truce village of Panmunjom for its delegation set to visit Seoul. It did not clarify whether the restoration would be permanent or effective only during the delegation's two-day stay, the official said.

The six-member North Korean delegation, led by a top party secretary, arrived in Seoul to pay tribute to the late President Kim Dae-jung. The Red Cross channel, mainly used as an official contact line between the two Koreas, was severed around the same time the border traffic restrictions were imposed.

The Aug. 20 announcement is the latest conciliatory gesture from North Korea. It invited Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, last week and released a Hyundai employee who had been detained there since March for criticizing its political system.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il also agreed with Hyun to resume joint tourism ventures and improve cross-border relations "under the historic June 15 joint declaration and the October 4 declaration," which were produced at the inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007, respectively.

Inter-Korean relations rapidly chilled after Lee came to power in February last year, taking a tougher stance on North Korea's nuclear program and suspending massive unconditional aid to the impoverished state.

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