(Updates with second round of talks called for Friday)
By Jack Kim
SEOUL Feb 13 South Korea has rejected a demand
by its northern neighbour to postpone this month's military
drills with the United States to avoid overlap with planned
reunions of families separated during the Korean War, an
official said on Thursday.
The demand, made at a rare high-level meeting between the
North and South on Wednesday, raised the possibility that the
reunion event might be scuttled and deal a setback to weeks of
confidence-building efforts by Seoul.
"North Korea persistently demanded the postponement of the
joint exercise for two days where it overlaps the reunions,"
South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told
parliament. "As far as we're concerned, it's impossible."
Ryoo is the South's top policymaker on the North.
The demand appears to be a step back by the North, which had
urged cancellation of the drills and is the latest example of
conflicting signals from Pyongyang, which included an abrupt
cancellation of an invitation for a U.S. envoy to visit and
discuss the plight of a U.S. missionary held there.
The two sides will meet again on Friday for the second round
of talks at the Panmunjom truce village, the Unification
Ministry said, adding that the meeting was again proposed by the
The North says the military drills are a rehearsal for war
by the United States, despite consistent denials by Seoul and
Washington, which say they are routine exercises. About 28,500
U.S. troops are permanently based in South Korea.
South Korea's defence ministry said the drills would be held
as scheduled later this month because troops and equipment have
already started mobilizing and because legitimate defence
activities should not be linked to a humanitarian event.
The two Koreas are scheduled to hold reunions of family
members separated since the Korean War from Feb. 20 to 25 at the
Mount Kumgang resort just inside the North. The drills start on
Feb. 24 and continue to mid-April.
Several lawmakers expressed concern that the North would
once again scrap the reunions, as it did in September. An expert
on the North said it was too optimistic to expect the North was
genuinely seeking reconciliation with the South.
"North Korea in the first place has no willingness to hold
reunions and it looks likely to fall apart," said Lee Ji-sue of
Myongji University in Seoul. "Even if it goes ahead, the
reunions will end up being an one-off event."
The North has previously threatened to cancel the reunions,
citing a sortie last week by a nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bomber
near the Korean peninsula. The United States has about 28,500
troops stationed in South Korea.
North Korea has cancelled an invitation for U.S. human
rights envoy Robert King to visit Pyongyang to discuss the
release of U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, which had been expected
to come as early as this week.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Clarence