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Beyond nuclear weapons, N.Korea talks could address family reunions, detainees

Ed Jones, AFP | A family conduct a memorial service for relatives in the North before a barbed wire fence near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, in Imjingak on February 8, 2016.

Beyond the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, a number of other issues could be raised during upcoming talks between Pyongyang, South Korea and, potentially, the United States.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plans to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April and, according to South Korean officials, wants to meet U.S. President Donald Trump.

South Korea’s long, complex relationship with its northern neighbour leaves the two sides with a wide range of issues to potentially address.

Family reunions

The Korean War of the 1950s ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war and families torn apart on both sides of the military demarcation line that divides the peninsula.

South Korean officials have called for the resumption of visits between separated Korean families in the North and South, as a “humanitarian and human rights issue”, especially as many family members are now in their 80s.

“Over 75,000 individuals residing in South Korea are aging and dying without meeting their families residing in North Korea,” said the Korean Red Cross, which has facilitated visits in the past.

The last reunions were in 2015, before relations deteriorated over the North’s nuclear programme and other issues. The South has also sought the resumption of video conferences and the delivery of letters from separated family members.


North Korea has a number of foreigners imprisoned, including at least six South Korean citizens, according to the South’s Unification Ministry.

Among them are Christian missionaries Kim Jung-wook, who was arrested in October 2013, and Kim Kook-kie and Choi Chun-kil, who have been held since 2014, the ministry said.

The other three are North Korean defectors who South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said last year were “captured” by the North without specifying where and why.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday he wanted to see a resolution to the issue of past abductions of 13 Japanese citizens Pyongyang admits were kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

North Korea also holds three American men.

Kim Dong-chul, a Korean-American missionary formerly of Fairfax, Virginia and thought to be 62, was sentenced in March 2016 to 10 years of hard labour for subversion.

Kim Sang-duk, 59, also known as Tony Kim, spent a month teaching accounting at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was detained at Pyongyang International Airport in April 2017 while trying to leave the country.

Kim Hak-song, thought to be 55, also taught at PUST, which was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010. He was detained in May while travelling by train from Pyongyang to the Chinese border town of Dandong.

Pyongyang has previously demanded Seoul return 12 North Korean women who worked at a North Korea-run restaurant in China and defected to South Korea as a group in 2016.

Economic, cultural exchanges

A rare example of North-South cooperation was the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea.

At its height, Kaesong employed 55,000 North Korean workers in South Korean-owned factories, turning out products from toys to textiles and providing the North with hard currency.

The complex shut down in 2016 after Seoul said the North was taking workers’ wages and using the money to fund its nuclear and missile programmes.

A South Korean panel concluded in December there was no evidence North Korea diverted wages to bankroll its weapons programmes.

South Korean factory owners have been hoping the thaw in inter-Korean relations would allow them to visit the complex to see what remains of the equipment and stocks they left behind when North Korea seized the factories, but an invitation from Pyongyang has not been forthcoming.

North Korea, under increasing pressure from international sanctions, is likely also keen to find new ways of boosting economic activity and generating foreign currency.

Moon has pledged to reopen the industrial park if there is progress on the North’s denuclearization.

More likely in the short term, analysts say, are cultural exchange programmes like those the two Koreas engaged in during the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

North Korea sent musicians, performers and officials to the South, while South Korean skiers travelled to a resort in the North for a joint training event.


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