SEOUL — North Korea has agreed to go ahead with planned family reunions with South Korea, stepping back from an earlier threat to cancel them because of the South's joint military drills with the United States. The two Koreas also agreed to not slander each other as part of trust-building measures in a sign of improving relations.
The exercises at the end of the month overlap dates for the first cross-border reunions since 2010 of relatives separated since the Korean War.
Pyongyang last week threatened to cancel the emotional meetings, citing the war games and U.S. military flights over the Korean peninsula.
But after the highest level talks between the two Koreas since 2007 Wednesday, the North softened its position, saying the drills should just be delayed.
South Korea's National Security Council (NSC) Secretary Kim Kyou-hyun said in a second day of discussions Friday, North Korean officials agreed the reunions would take place unconditionally and not be linked to the military.
He said they are a separate matter and it becomes the basis of trust between the two Koreas. The family reunions, he says, are an important first step towards trust. So, Seoul asked North Korea to accept their position, and the agreement came together.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed the agreement and said both sides expressed the will to open a new phase of national unity, peace and prosperity by improving inter-Korean relations.
The family reunions are to run from February 20 to 25 and take place near the border in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort.
The military drills start on February 24 and go through April.
Pyongyang postponed the last effort at reunions in September, blaming military exercises and South Korea's hostile attitude.
North Korea says the defense drills are preparation for an invasion, while South Korea and the U.S. say they maintain readiness for provocation from Pyongyang.
The two Koreas also agreed Friday to avoid slandering each other as part of the trust-building measures.
Pyongyang was demanding an end to South Korean media reports on anything deemed insulting to leader Kim Jong Un or its political system.
But NSC Secretary Kim says he explained South Korea's freedom of the press to the North Korean delegation, citing a former U.S. president.
He said by using the words of former president Thomas Jefferson, he explained the principles governing the press in a democratic society. He says Jefferson supported a free press to maintain liberty, despite criticisms and incorrect reporting after he was elected. So they clearly stated, he says, that South Korea cannot control or obstruct the media.
Kim says they are leaving open the possibility of a third round of high-level meetings with North Korea as needed, but nothing is so far scheduled.
The senior-level talks were held in the border village of Panmunjom where the two Koreas signed a cease-fire in 1953 ending Korean War fighting.
But a peace treaty was never concluded and the peninsula remains technically at war.
More than 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to prevent a repeat of the 1950 North Korean invasion that started the Korean War.
VOA Seoul Bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report