SEOUL Feb 5 North and South Korea discussed
holding reunions between families separated by the 1950-53
Korean War on Wednesday, as Pyongyang mounted pressure on Seoul
to cancel U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Officials from both sides met on the North Korean side of
the Panmunjom "truce village" that straddles the inter-Korean
border six decades after a truce, not a peace treaty, ended the
Officially North Korea has not linked any possible agreement
on the family reunions with its demand for the cancellation of
the annual war games that are scheduled to begin this month. But
officials in the South say the intention is clear, and that
Seoul will not fall in line.
"The drills have been conducted annually and they simply
cannot be an issue for us as far as the reunions are concerned,"
said a South Korean government official involved in dealings
with the North, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In recent weeks, North Korean diplomats have given rare
media interviews and press conferences that have reiterated
calls from Pyongyang's top ruling bodies to end the annual
It's unlike North Korea's usual threats and aggressive tone
used with the South but that doesn't mean Pyongyang has changed,
"There is no more seriousness behind this offer than others
Pyongyang has advanced," said Andrea Berger, a research fellow
at the Royal United Services Institute in London who interacts
regularly with North Korean officials.
"North Korea has not yet made clear that the significant
military restraint it is demanding on the South Korean side
would be matched by military restraint on its own part."
The North's offer to hold the family reunions have been
welcomed both by its sole major ally, China, and the United
States, who were also on opposing sides in the Korean War.
The war left millions of families divided, with free private
travel across the border and communication, including phone
More than 70,000 South Koreans have been seeking to meet
lost family members at family reunions. At past reunions, a few
hundred people have met separated relatives for fleeting moments
at a resort in Mount Kumgang, just north of the Korean border,
before returning home to their respective homes.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula soared last year as
Pyongyang reacted angrily to tightened U.N. sanctions imposed in
response to its latest nuclear test.
That was followed by a period of aggressive rhetoric from
the North that warned of nuclear war should joint U.S.-South
Korean drills continue - a threat the United States responded to
with long-range nuclear bomber sorties over the peninsula.
"Their tone this year is different; they're saying 'please
don't do this', as opposed to in the past when they threatened
military action if drills went ahead," said Kwak In-su, a
researcher at the Seoul-based Institute for National Strategy
and a former North Korean spy who fled to the South in 1995.
"They're putting on a show but at the same time they really
want some changes - it's a mixed bag," he added.
North Korea's intentions are always difficult to read, and
the relative lack of understanding surrounding Kim Jong Un, the
third of his family to rule the country, has made the situation
even more complex. Kim's government ordered the execution of his
uncle, viewed as the number two leader in North Korea, last year
and has purged officials related or linked to him.
In the past, Pyongyang has agreed to hold family reunions
only to pull out days before they are scheduled to take place.
The impending war drills could provide an excuse for North Korea
to do so again, said Berger, the analyst.
"The scheduling of family reunions highlights one of the
side effects of decades of North Korean allergic reactions to
military exercises," she said.
"To avoid the risk that Pyongyang's objections to joint
drills cause such engagement to collapse from one side, Seoul
and Washington intentionally try to conclude or fulfil bilateral
agreements before exercises start."
(Additional Reporting By Jumin Park and Michelle Kim; Editing
by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)