PYONGYANG: A senior North Korean official on Wednesday ruled out any more reunions for families separated decades ago by war unless a group of citizens from the reclusive state are returned by South Korea.
The North says the group of 12 were kidnapped while the South says they defected voluntarily. Pyongyang also wants a 13th citizen repatriated.
The families separated by the Korean War, which ended more than 60 years ago, are the most emotional manifestation of the division of the peninsula.
With no direct contact between North and South, not even telephone links, many have no idea whether their parents, siblings or children are still alive.
A series of highly charged meetings were held in recent years, when ties across the Demilitarized Zone were warmer, enabling around 4,000 of those in the South to see their relatives for the first time in decades.
But the last such reunion was in 2015 before inter-Korean relations were frozen amid North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons.
Ruling and opposition parties in the South agreed earlier this week to seek a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
But Kim Yong-Chol, of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea, poured cold water on the proposal Wednesday.
“At the moment another issue is more important and more urgent,” he told AFP in Pyongyang, saying that the 12 workers who defected from a restaurant in China were “being detained by force in South Korea”, along with Kim Ryon-Hui, a dressmaker who says she wants to go back to the North.
“They should be returned immediately.”
The father of Ri Ji-Ye, one of the 12, he said, “died with his eyes open and cursing the conservative elements who have detained his daughter”.
“Unless Kim Ryon-Hui and 12 other women workers are returned immediately there can never be any kind of humanitarian cooperation. And this is our principled stand.”
Pyongyang is accused of widespread human rights abuses, including by a United Nations inquiry, and campaign groups say defectors who are returned to the North face severe punishment.
Around 60,000 members of divided families members are still alive in the South, but they are dying off rapidly without ever enjoying reunions.
Hopes of a renewed reunion program were raised by the election last month of left-leaning President Moon Jae-In, who favors engagement with Pyongyang and has proposed offering reunions for all divided family members in exchange for humanitarian aid for the North such as hospital construction.
Moon’s own family was divided when his parents fled the North, and he and his mother were themselves participants in a reunion in 2004, when they met his aunt.
“I can relate to the refugees’ pain better than anyone else,” he said on the campaign trail.