South Korea moves to expand remit of planned talks with North

South Korea wants the reunification of families divided since the end of the Korean War to be on the agenda when its diplomats meet their North Korean counterparts at Panmunjom on Tuesday morning.

Cho Myoung-Gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, said on Monday that Seoul also hopes to be able to explore ways of reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula when the two sides meet to discuss arrangements for North Korean athletes to take part in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.

"We will listen to what North Korea will say", Mr Cho told reporters in Seoul. "We will make efforts to enable the North to take part in the games.

"Basically, the two sides will focus on the Olympics", Yonhap news quoted Mr Cho as saying. "When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to east military tensions".

Mr Cho will head the five-strong South Korean delegation taking part in the talks, which are scheduled to start at 10am local time in one of the prefabricated blue huts that sit astride the North-South border at Panmunjom and have been the scene of countless – mostly fruitless – discussions since an armistice was signed to halt the three-year Korean War.

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The talks will be the first direct dialogue between the two governments since December 2015.

Reuniting families who have been separated for more than 60 years has been a regular request from successive governments in the South. Since August 2000,  South Koreans have been able to travel to the North to meet their relatives on more than 20 occasions, although deteriorating ties between Pyongyang and successive and more hard-line conservative governments in the South have meant that the last meeting was in February 2014.

North Korea has been accused of using the families in the North as a bargaining chip to wring concessions out of the South and, given the dwindling number of relatives still alive and their desperation to see their loved-ones, may use a similar tactic again.

The North Korean delegation will be headed by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea. Regarded as a veteran negotiator, he has overseen cross-border military talks since 2006 and is considered to be a key advisor to Kim Young-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party and reportedly the mastermind behind the sinking in 2010 of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the deaths of 46 of her crew.

South Korean army soldiers stand guard on Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone, near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South KoreaCredit:
Ahn Young-joon/ AP

North Korean state media has hinted at Pyongyang’s priorities going into the talks, with the Korea Central News Agency reporting: "The entire process of North-South relations shows that efforts to improve bilateral ties can come to fruition only when the two sides work together based upon cooperation among Korean people."

"The will to enhance North-South relations must be backed up not by words, but by practical actions to foster inter-Korean reconciliation and unity, and reunification", it added.

While the North appears to be extending an olive branch to the South, no such niceties are on offer to Washington, despite suggestions by President Donald Trump that he would be open to a telephone conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

"The imperialist forces, led by the United State, are violently infringing upon other countries’ sovereignty and slaughtering peaceful residents", the Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial.

"The US-led unequal international order is now shaken to the roots by our republic, which has emerged as a new strategic state capable of posing an actual nuclear threat to the US mainland", it added.

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The newspaper went on to describe Mr Trump as "a premium war dealer who destroys world peace".

Polls in South Korea have suggested that three-quarters of the population are in favour of North Korean athletes taking part in the Winter Olympics, which are due to start in the city of Pyeongchang on February 9.

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Yet conservative politicians and large parts of the South Korean media continue to warn that the North cannot be trusted.

In its editorial on Monday, the ChosunIlbo newspaper called for the South Korean government to stick to the principle of negotiations being geared to ultimately removing nuclear weapons from the peninsula.

"No international principles must be compromised just to ensure a bit of glory for the Pyeongchang Olympics", the editorial declared.

"Seoul would be reduced to a tool in realising Pyongyang’s evil schemes", it added. "It must not allow itself to get sucked into concessions that weaken international pressure on the regime".

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