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North Korea Threatens to Cancel Family Reunions

North Korea is threatening to cancel its just-announced family reunions with the South if Seoul and Washington go ahead with upcoming joint military drills.

The threat comes a day after Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to hold reunions later this month between families separated by the 1950s Korean War, in a rare sign of inter-Korean cooperation.

On state television Thursday, the North's National Defense Commission was quoted as saying the war drills are incompatible with improved inter-Korean relations.



"We're clearly stating that dialogue and invasive war practices can never co-exist, just as reconciliation and conflict can't (co-exist)."



The North's statement also slammed the U.S. for allegedly deploying B-52 bombers in South Korea on Wednesday while the talks between Seoul and Pyongyang were being held.

The U.S. has not commented on the North Korean allegation about the B-52s, which have been used in the past during routine military drills over South Korea.

But the South's Yonhap news agency quoted a Seoul military source as saying one of the bombers was flown on a training exercise Wednesday.

Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korea's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, insists Seoul is standing firm, and will not cancel this month's war drills.



"Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are annual defensive exercises for the defense of the Korean peninsula. So, the exercises will go ahead as usual apart from the reunion of the separated families."



North Korea has for weeks called for the U.S. to cancel the exercises set for later this month, viewing them as preparation to invade.



Many fear the war games will give North Korea an opportunity to back out of the family reunions, which have not been held since 2010.

Stephen Noerper with the New York-based Korea Society tells VOA there has always been a risk that North Korea would withdraw.



"Some feel that North Korea may be using this as a bargaining chip in that the reunions are scheduled now for February 20-25 and those South Korea-U.S. military exercises are due to begin at the end of the month."



Both sides also agreed last year to resume the family meetings, but North Korea canceled at the last minute, citing the South's "hostility."

However, South Korean officials on Wednesday said they had received assurances that Pyongyang would follow through this time.

David Straub, of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University, tells VOA that may be the case, if North Korea feels enough pressure from China, its biggest ally, as well as the U.S., Japan and South Korea.



"It may very well be that the North Korean leadership is feeling the need to get a little flexibility and show a nicer side for a while so they can get one or more of these states to start playing 'footsie' with them again."



Since the family reunions began in 2000, about 18,000 Koreans have been temporarily reunited.

But many more Koreans, many of whom are aging, are anxious for the program to resume, as they are unable even to exchange letters or phone calls with their relatives.

If this month's reunions take place, they will be held from February 20-25 at the Mount Kumgang resort on North Korea's east coast.

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