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S. Korean Red Cross seeks independent communications channel with Northern counterpart

All Headlines 14:54 October 28, 2010

SEOUL, Oct. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Red Cross is pushing to set up its own communications channel with its North Korean counterpart so that it can carry out humanitarian missions independent of cross-border political tensions, the organization's chief said Thursday.

"We're talking with the government on the need to work with the North Korean Red Cross through an independent means of communication," Yoo Chong-ha, president of the Korean National Red Cross, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"Government-level dialogue is between governments. The role of the Red Cross has to be separate," Yoo said.

The Red Cross, although tasked with non-political projects such as relief aid and family reunions, has at times served as an alternative track for contact and talks between the two Koreas, who are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

"The Red Cross is not a subsidiary agency to the Unification Ministry. It is not appropriate for all concerned that the Red Cross should work on behalf of the government," Yoo said in the interview. The chief will be heading to the North to oversee a round of family reunions that begin on Friday.

Currently, there is no channel linking the Red Cross chapters of the two Koreas. Their sole hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom was severed as part of Seoul's package of punitive measures announced in May after holding the North responsible for the deadly sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors.

Yoo said he would tell his North Korean counterpart, Jang Jae-on, of the importance of resuming humanitarian exchanges, regardless of political tensions, when he visits North Korea.

In Red Cross talks this week that reopened for the first time in a year, the North asked Seoul to provide tens of thousands of tons in rice and fertilizer aid in exchange for expanding family reunions.

"This is not an issue for the Red Cross" to deal with, said Yoo, with skepticism on whether such aid draws results.

"It has been proven in the past that (family reunions and large-scale aid) do not go together. We have provided more than 1 trillion won in aid. But how many families were there who could reunite?" he said.

More than 80,000 South Koreans are waiting for a chance to be reconnect with their loved ones who were left in the North after the Korean War. About 20,800 Koreans have been reunited since 2000, when the countries' leaders held their first-ever summit.

Reunions so far had been restricted to 100 people from each side, and Seoul is pressing Pyongyang to increase the number as well as the frequency of the reunions.


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