North Korea indefinitely postponed Saturday reunions for families separated since the Korean war, just days before they were to resume, leaving relatives “disappointed beyond description.”
The highly symbolic and emotional meetings of selected families from the North and South, separated for six decades by the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, would have been the first reunions in three years.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted the government as saying Seoul’s “hostile” policy was to blame for the last-minute cancellation, singling out the South’s military exercises with the US and a recent crackdown on allegedly pro-Pyongyang leftists.
Analysts believe the move is designed to place pressure on the South to resume cross-border tours to a scenic resort that is an important source of revenue for the North’s cash-strapped communist regime.
“We postpone the impending reunions of separated families until a normal atmosphere is created for talks and negotiations to be able to move forward,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said.
“As long as the South’s conservatives deal [with] inter-Korean relations [with] hostility and abuse... such a basic humanitarian issue as family reunions cannot be resolved,” it said.
Millions of Koreans were left separated by the Korean War, which sealed the peninsula’s division. Most have died without having the chance to reunite with family members last seen six decades ago.
The two sides had agreed to hold six days of reunions at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort from Wednesday until Sept. 30.
Kang Neung-hwan, 92, who desperately hoped to see his son, who lives in the North, told Yonhap news agency: “I am greatly disappointed. It’s increasingly painful for me to wait to see my son.”
Koh Jeong-sam said his 95-year-old mother had already purchased presents she wanted to give to her sisters in the North.
“My mother was disappointed beyond description,” he said.
The South’s Unification Ministry expressed “deep regret” at the “unilateral” and “inhumane” action, which it said could not be justified under any circumstances.
“The breach of a hard-won agreement by the North would bring inter-Korean relations back to confrontation. There will be nothing for the North to gain,” the ministry said in a statement.
The final list of relatives who would have benefited carried the names of 96 South Koreans and 100 North Koreans, although the actual numbers were expected to be higher because each selected candidate could take a number of relatives.
The reunion program had been suspended after the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island in November 2010.
About 72,000 South Koreans — nearly half of them aged over 80 — are still alive and wait-listed for a chance to join the highly sought-after reunion events, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.
South Korea’s University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin said that Pyongyang was using the reunions as a ploy to put pressure on Seoul to resume tours to Kumgang.
The South suspended the tours to the mountain resort in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.
Seoul says it will not restart the tours to Kumgang, a cash cow for the North as it develops nuclear weapons and missiles, unless Pyongyang apologizes explicitly over the killing of the South Korean tourist.
At the emotional, often tearful reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans return home.
The first reunions in 1985 coincided with a short-lived thaw in North-South relations, but they were discontinued for the next 15 years.
A historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 saw the program start again in earnest and an estimated 17,000 people have been reunited since then.
The last such meeting took place in late 2010, before the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Inter-Korean relations have showed signs of improving recently after months of heightened military tensions that followed the North’s nuclear test in February.