Seoul’s defence ministry wants to reboot moribund diplomacy as Red Cross renews attempts to reunite Korean families.
South Korea has offered to hold rare military talks with the North to ease tensions after Pyongyang’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test earlier this month.
Monday’s offer, the first since South Korea elected the moderate Moon Jae-In as president, came as the Red Cross in Seoul proposed a separate meeting to discuss the reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean war.
The South’s defence ministry proposed a meeting on Friday at the border truce village of Panmunjom, while the Red Cross offered to hold talks on 1 August at the same venue.
If the government meeting goes ahead, it will be the first official inter-Korea talks since December 2015. Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, had refused to engage in substantive dialogue with Pyongyang unless the isolated regime made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation.
The Red Cross said it hoped for a positive response from its counterpart in the North; mooted family reunions in early October would be the first in two years.
Millions of families were separated by the conflict that sealed the division of the peninsula. Many died without getting a chance to see or hear from their families on the other side of the heavily-fortified border, across which all civilian communication is banned.
Only about 60,000 members of divided families are still left in the South.
“North Korea should respond to our sincere proposals if it really seeks peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho Myoung-gyon, Seoul’s unification minister in charge of North Korea affairs.
Cho stressed that Seoul “would not seek collapse of the North or unification through absorbing the North” and urged Pyongyang to restore inter-Korea communication channels, including a shuttered military hotline.
Moon, who took power in May, has advocated dialogue with the nuclear-armed North as a means of bringing it to the negotiating table and vowed to play a more active role in global efforts to tame the South’s unpredictable neighbour.
But Pyongyang has staged a series of missile launches in violation of UN resolutions, most recently on 4 July when it test-fired its first ICBM, a move which triggered global alarm and a push by the US president, Donald Trump, to impose harsher UN sanctions on the country.
Washington has also called on China, the North’s sole ally, to put more pressure on Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear ambitions, which have advanced rapidly under the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“We make the proposal for a meeting … aimed at stopping all hostile activities that escalate military tension along the land border,” the defence ministry said in a statement.[NEW]The European Union offered European support for South Korean efforts to negotiate with North Korea, but said it was also considering tougher sanctions on Pyongyang following its first intercontinental ballistic missile test.
In a statement Monday, the EU’s executive arm condemned the test earlier this month as a “serious threat to international peace and security” and urged an end to such actions.
The latest missile test – which Kim described as a “gift” to the Americans – was seen as a milestone in Pyongyang’s quest to build a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that can hit the US mainland.
The proposed meetings, if realised, would be a “rare opportunity to ease tension that has built up for 10 years”, said Cheong Seong-chang, analyst at the Sejong Institute, a thinktank.
“It would at least help let off some steam out of the current crisis, although the North would still maintain that it would not give up its weapons programmes,” he said.
The agenda for the meeting could include moves to suspend propaganda campaigns operated on both sides of the border for years, Cheong added.
The South’s military has deployed dozens of giant loudspeakers along the tense border to blare out a mix of world news, K-pop songs and other propaganda targeting young North Korean soldiers.
It has also occasionally launched giant balloons containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border despite warnings of military retaliation by the North.
The North has responded with its own propaganda broadcasts and sent anti-Seoul leaflets via giant balloons across the border.