SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea called on Thursday for the first family reunion event with North Korea in three years, a day after the two nations agreed to reopen a shuttered joint industrial zone.
President Park Geun-Hye, in a speech marking the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, urged Pyongyang to "open its heart" and agree to a meeting next month for families left divided by the Korean War.
The South Korean leader also welcomed Wednesday's agreement on the Kaesong industrial park, which she said could start "inter-Korea relations anew" after months of sky-high tensions.
"I hope that the North will open its heart so that the divided families can be reunited around the Chuseok holiday," Park said, referring to a traditional Korean harvest festival that this year falls on September 19.
Millions of Koreans were left separated by the 1950-53 war. The last round of reunions to allow ageing relatives to meet under Red Cross auspices took place in 2010, when as in previous rounds there were scenes of high emotion.
North Korea last month proposed to hold talks on resuming the family reunion programme in conjunction with discussions about the Kaesong industrial complex. But it retracted the offer after Seoul insisted that the two issues should be dealt with separately.
The Seoul-invested industrial zone, built just north of the border in 2004 as a rare symbol of cooperation, ground to a halt in April after remaining immune to cross-border political swings for years.
Pyongyang, angered at a joint South-US army drill coming after it conducted a nuclear test in February, withdrew all its 53,000 workers from Kaesong. Seoul soon pulled out all its company managers.
Six previous rounds of talks since April had foundered on the South's insistence that the North take full responsibility for the crisis and provide a binding guarantee that it would not close the complex again. Pyongyang had refused to do so.
But Wednesday's agreement suggested a compromise in which the North accepted the worker pullout had closed Kaesong, while both sides promised jointly to ensure the zone remained open in the future.
However, the two sides failed to set a precise date for the resumption of operations at Kaesong, and the South Koreans sounded a note of caution after the deal was announced.
"This agreement is not an end but only a beginning," Seoul's chief negotiator Kim Ki-Woong told reporters.
Still, the agreement drew support from the US State Department and UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, and analysts said it should clear the way to cooperation in other fields despite North Korea's warnings against the latest set of US-South Korea drills.