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S Korea's Park seeks to reboot unification drive

South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed on Tuesday to map out a fresh path to Korean reunification, building on a recent thaw in cross-border ties despite the North's anger over South-US military drills.

SEOUL: South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed on Tuesday to map out a fresh path to Korean reunification, building on a recent thaw in cross-border ties despite the North's anger over South-US military drills.

In a speech marking her first year in office, Park, who had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, said she was setting up a committee under her direct control to work out "systematic and constructive" plans for unifying the divided peninsula.

Her national televised address coincided with the conclusion of a six-day North-South reunion for family members separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The event, held in North Korea, was the first of its kind for more than three years, and raised hopes of a sustained upswing in relations between the prosperous, democratic South and the impoverished, totalitarian North.

"For true peace... it is necessary to make preparations for reunification that will open a new era on the peninsula," Park said in her address.

South Korea already has an entire ministry dedicated to unification, and it was unclear how the presidential committee would work differently from -- or liaise with -- the existing government body.

Reunification is enshrined as a national priority in both the South and North Korean constitutions, but pro-merger sentiment in the prosperous South -- especially among younger people -- has waned considerably in recent years.

Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the privately-run Institute for Peace and Unification in Seoul, said Park was keen to be seen as having a "pro-active" North Korea policy.

"She may try to use the new committee to revive flagging public interest," Chang told AFP.

Economic bust or "bonanza"? 

Last week, Seoul's top official for North Korean affairs warned that the goal of reunification was being undermined by the waning interest of young South Koreans.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said it was time to revamp the three-stage roadmap for reunification set in the 1990s.

With the South's economy -- Asia's fourth-largest -- nearly 40 times larger than that of the North, many cite concerns over the enormous financial burden of integration and the social chaos that might follow.

But since the start of this year, Park has been promoting a counter-narrative that highlights a potential economic "bonanza" to be reaped from the combination of South Korean technical expertise and the North's natural resources.

Analysts like Aidan Foster-Carter, an expert on Korean affairs at Leeds University, remain highly sceptical -- not least of the implied assumption that reunification would be a peaceful process.

"If Korean reunification ever happens, it will be a grim, arduous march: a long hard slog to integrate two societies now as divergent as the proverbial chalk and cheese," he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.

"No wonder young Koreans abhor the idea," he added.

For the moment, President Park seems to have the public on her side.

Opinion polls show a healthy approval rating for her first year in office, with some of the highest scores linked to her handling of North Korea.

Thaw just surface deep

Park has pushed a trust-building policy with Pyongyang, while standing firm in the face of bellicose North Korea threats -- especially during a protracted surge in tensions in the months after she took office.

Her speech on Tuesday coincided with the final day of what has been the biggest success of that policy so far -- the reunion for divided families.

The event went ahead despite North Korean fury over South Korea's annual military drills with the United States which kicked off on Monday.

Pyongyang had threatened to cancel the reunion unless the drills were postponed, but Seoul refused and the North eventually backed down after the highest-level talks between the two rivals for seven years.

South Korea has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days, approving a number of privately-organised aid deliveries to the North and offering official assistance in curbing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Park's speech clearly sought to build on that momentum, but elsewhere there were reminders of the dangerous tensions that always lurk beneath the surface.

Overnight Monday, a North Korean patrol boat repeatedly crossed the rivals' disputed Yellow Sea border which has been the scene of brief but bloody naval clashes in the past.

"We suspect this is aimed at testing our military preparedness," said defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok.

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