South Korea on Thursday offered talks with North Korea to discuss a reunion 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 held family reunions before. But prospects remain unpromising, with the North racing to beef up its weapons arsenals and refusing to deal with Yoon's administration.
Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, urged a swift, positive response, saying Seoul will consider Pyongyang's preferences in deciding the date, venue, agenda and format of the 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.
The two Koreas have held family reunions around major holidays, mostly under liberal governments in the South, which have sought to reengage the North and provide food and other handouts.
But cross-border ties have soured. The North conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year and is seen as ready for its first nuclear test since 2017.
When asked about the possibility of food aid, Kwon said his government was not considering "special incentives" and the North should respond to address humanitarian matters.
Even if Pyongyang rejects his offer, Seoul will "continuously make proposals," Kwon said.
Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said chances are extremely low that 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, who took office in May, has unveiled what he called an "audacious" plan to provide economic aid in return for nuclear disarmament, but said he would respond sternly to the North's 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."
The last round of family reunions took place in 2018, when Yoon's liberal predecessor held summits with Kim and tried to broker a peace agreement between Pyongyang and Washington.