World

South Korea proposes military talks with North at border

SEOUL— South Korea on Monday proposed holding military and humanitarian talks with North Korea, aimed at easing tensions along their heavily armed border and arranging reunions of families divided decades ago by the Korean War.

North Korea did not immediately respond. Its reaction will be the first test of the pro-dialogue policy of South Korea’s liberal new president, Moon Jae-in, who argues that talks are the likeliest way to end the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

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The South wants to send a military delegation to the border village of Panmunjom on Friday to discuss “stopping all hostile activities that raise military tension” along the border, Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk said Monday.

Such a meeting would be the first between the two governments since 2015 and the first inter-Korean military dialogue since 2014.

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The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, had proposed such talks in a May 2016 speech. But the South’s then-president, Park Geun-hye, a conservative who has since been impeached and removed from office, rejected the offer, calling it insincere and demanding that the North first move toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

Moon reaffirmed his commitment to dialogue in a speech in Berlin this month, days after Pyongyang conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Suh, the vice defense minister, on Monday called on the North to restore a military hotline that Pyongyang cut off in 2016, amid tensions after its nuclear test in January of that year. Without the hotline, the two militaries have no means of communicating quickly and directly to avoid an unintended conflict.

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South Korea did not disclose what specifically it wanted to discuss if military talks were held. In past meetings, North Korea has demanded that the South stop holding joint military exercises with the United States and end the use of loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda along the border.

South Korea has recently accused the North of sending military drones to spy on the South, an issue that Seoul would be likely to raise.

Also Monday, the South Korean Red Cross Society proposed a meeting at Panmunjom on Aug. 1 with its North Korean counterpart, to arrange reunions of relatives in the North and South who have not seen each other since being separated during the 1950-53 Korean War. Those reunions, which have been held occasionally over the years, are a highly emotional issue and are widely seen as a barometer of inter-Korean relations. Moon said in his Berlin speech that the reunions should resume.

The last such meetings were held in 2015, when fewer than 100 elderly Koreans from each side were allowed to spend three days with their family members.

About 60,000 South Koreans are still hoping for a chance to see spouses, siblings, and parents across the border before they die. More than half of them are in their 80s or older.

North Korea has said it will not allow another round of reunions unless the South sends 12 North Korean waitresses back to the country. South Korea has said that the women, who worked at a North Korean restaurant in China, chose to defect to the South with their manager last year, but Pyongyang accused the South of kidnapping them.

Pyongyang has also demanded the return of Kim Ryen Hi, a North Korean defector in the South who has said she made a mistake and wants to go back. South Korea has said there are no legal grounds for sending her back to the North.

The UN Security Council is discussing a new set of sanctions against North Korea over its ICBM test. The North has warned that such a move would lead to unspecified retaliatory measures, which analysts said might include another nuclear or long-range missile test.

In a separate development Monday, South Korean officials said an American who helped arrange for 30 female peace activists to cross the heavily armed border between North and South Korea in 2015 has been denied entry to South Korea.

Christine Ahn, a South Korean-born US citizen, said she did not know she was persona non grata in the country until Asiana Airlines stopped her from boarding a flight at the San Francisco airport Thursday.

She had planned to transfer through Incheon International Airport outside Seoul on her way to China, where she intended to spend a week before visiting South Korea.

After being told she was not allowed in South Korea, she bought a new ticket to fly directly to Shanghai, she said.

The Justice Ministry of South Korea said Ahn had been denied entry because there were sufficient grounds to fear that she might “hurt the national interests and public safety” of South Korea.

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