North and South Korea agreed yesterday to allow some families separated by the Korean War to hold brief reunions, despite a campaign by Pyongyang that Seoul cancel planned war games with the US.
Any kind of agreement between the two rivals is rare and in the past, unpredictable North Korea has withdrawn permission for the event at the last minute.
A meeting of officials from North and South Korea agreed the reunions would take place from Feb. 20 to Feb. 25 in Mount Kumgang, just north of the border, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said. At previous reunions, about 100 families were allowed to meet relatives on the other side for fleeting moments before they were sent back to their respective homes.
Officially North Korea has not linked the reunions with its demand for the cancellation of the annual military exercises by the US and South Korean militaries scheduled to begin this month.
However, 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 military drills.
It was unlike North Korea’s usual threats and aggressive tone used with the South, but that does not mean Pyongyang has changed, analysts said.
“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 allow the family reunions has been welcomed by its sole major ally, China, and the US, which were also on opposing sides during the Korean War.
More than 70,000 South Koreans have been seeking to meet lost family members at the reunions. The successful ones are chosen by lottery.
“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.
The impending war drills could provide an excuse for North Korea to call off the reunions, Berger said.
“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 fulfill bilateral agreements before exercises start,” she said.