SEOUL — South Korea has rejected North Korea's demand that it postpone annual joint military drills with the United States until after reunions of Korean families separated by the Korean War. Nonetheless, senior-level talks between the two Koreas are set to continue at North Korea's request.
North and South Korea are set to meet Friday for a second day of high-level talks after an overnight breakdown over joint military drills with the United States.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Thursday Pyongyang requested dialogue continue despite Seoul's dismissing demands it postpone the exercises.
North Korea said the defense drills should be held after recently re-scheduled cross-border family reunions.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae addressed South Korean lawmakers Thursday at the National Assembly, and reported that North Korea demanded the postponement of the U.S.-South Korea joint exercise until after family reunions. The South Korean side, he said, emphasized that family reunions are a humanitarian issue and should not be linked with political or military matters. He said a clear message was sent that the South could not accept a postponement.
North Korea made the demand during senior level talks Wednesday at the border truce village of Panmunjom. It is the highest level discussion between the two Koreas since 2007.
The North Korean delegation also demanded South Korea muzzle freedom of the press by instructing media not to print anything deemed insulting about leader Kim Jong Un and their political system.
The reunion of families separated by the Korean War was originally scheduled for September but, with just days to go, Pyongyang scrapped the plan. It blamed South Korea for taking too much credit for improved relations as well as insults to its dignity.
North Korea agreed last month to re-schedule the reunions from February 20 through 25, but once again threatened to cancel them over U.S. military flights and the defense drills, which overlap from the 24th through April.
North Korea's calling for a postponement of the drills represents a softening of its earlier hard-line position that they be stopped.
Nonetheless, South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said the schedule will not be changed. Kim said military units have already started moving into place to conduct the drills and the troops are supposed to participate in the drills as planned. It is not appropriate, he said, to link the exercises to the family reunions.
Pyongyang said the regular drills, called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are preparation for a nuclear attack. Washington and Seoul say they are for maintaining preparedness against North Korea.
The apparent defrosting of relations between North and South comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Seoul.
The top U.S. diplomat is expected to focus much of the two-day visit on issues involving threats from North Korea and its pursuit of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.