South Korean war veterans attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War in Cheorwon
A South Korean war veteran holds the national flag during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Cheorwon, South Korea, June 25, 2020.

South Korea on Thursday offered to hold talks with North Korea on reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, in its first direct overture under President Yoon Suk-yeol despite strained cross-border ties.

The surprise proposal came days before the thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok, when the two Koreas have in the past held family reunions. But prospects are not good, with North Korea racing to improve its weapons and refusing to deal with Yoon's administration.

South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, urged a swift, positive response, saying Seoul would consider Pyongyang's preferences on a date, venue, agenda and format of any talks.

"We hope that responsible officials of the two sides will meet in person as soon as possible for a candid discussion on humanitarian matters including the issue of separated families," Kwon told a news conference.

Hours after the proposal, South Korea's foreign ministry announced a revival of high-level talks with the United States, designed to boost deterrence against the North, which includes a U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The conservative Yoon took office in May vowing to bolster South Korea's military capabilities and strengthen so-called extended deterrence, which refers to the ability of the U.S. military, particularly its nuclear forces, to deter attacks on U.S. allies.

Hong Min, a senior fellow at the South's Korea Institute for National Unification, said North Korea might see South Korea's offer of dialogue and deterrence efforts as a sign of what it has called double standards.

The two Koreas have in the past held family reunions around the time of major holidays, mostly under liberal governments in the South that have tried to engage with the North.

But cross-border ties have soured. The North has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year and is believed to have made preparations for its first nuclear test since 2017.

When asked about the possibility of food aid to the North, Kwon said his government was not exploring "special incentives" but would be willing to "consider positively if the North makes other humanitarian requests".

Even if North Korea rejected the offer of talks, South Korea would "continuously make proposals", he said.

Kwon said the offer would be sent via an inter-Korean hotline to Ri Son-gwon, director of the North's United Front Department, which handles South Korea issues.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said chances were slim the North would accept the offer, citing its recent comments on Yoon.

"Family reunions is a basic humanitarian issue but in reality it requires a substantial level of trust between both sides," he said.


Yoon has unveiled what he called an "audacious" plan to provide North Korea with economic aid in return for nuclear disarmament but has said he would respond sternly to any North Korean provocations.

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said last month Yoon should "shut his mouth" and her country would not sit face to face with him, criticising his plan as "absurd".

Kwon said the proposal for talks was not part of Yoon's aid-for-denuclearisation initiative but was meant as a step to restart humanitarian exchanges regardless of the political and military situation.

Lim said Yoon's government was probably not expecting North Korea to accept the offer but might have seen domestic value in making it, given Yoon's low approval ratings and cross-border tension.

Families have been separated by a standoff that has persisted since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice not a peace treaty.

More than 133,000 South Koreans have registered for family reunions since 1988, but only about 44,000 of them are still alive as of August, with 37% in their 80s and 30% in their 90s, Unification Ministry data showed.

The last family reunions took place in 2018, when Yoon's liberal predecessor held summits with Kim Jong Un and tried to broker a peace agreement between North Korea and the United States.