North Korea threatened Thursday to cancel reunions of Korean War-divided families because of upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills and accused the United States of raising tensions by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers near the Korean Peninsula.
The apparent about-face a day after the rival Koreas agreed on dates for the emotional meetings fits a pattern analysts describe of North Korea agreeing to things South Korea covets and then pulling back until it gets what it wants — in this case a ratcheting down of massive military drills by Seoul and Washington that are seen as a huge drain on the impoverished North's military.
The rival Koreas decided Wednesday to resume the family reunions, which haven't been held since 2010, on Feb. 20-25. Before the agreement, many in Seoul were skeptical that North Korea would allow the reunions anytime soon because of its anger over the annual military drills scheduled later this month. North Korea calls the drills preparation for war and is extremely sensitive about any nuclear-capable U.S. craft in the region, while South Korea and the U.S. say the exercises are purely defensive.
On Thursday, the North's powerful National Defence Commission warned that the reunions may not happen if South Korea goes ahead with the drills and continues slandering leader Kim Jong-un.
"It would be a nonsense to hold reunions of families and relatives separated due to the past war while extremely dangerous nuclear war drills take place," an unidentified spokesman for the commission's policy department said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
It said U.S. B-52 bombers conducted nuclear strike drills targeting the North on Wednesday while the two Koreas were discussing the family reunions.
The U.S. Pacific Command wouldn't confirm the North's claim but said it has maintained a strategic bomber presence in the region for more than a decade. Seoul's Defence Ministry also wouldn't confirm local media reports that cited unidentified military officials as saying there had been a training flight by a single B-52.
Despite the North's threat, South Korea said the drills will go ahead as scheduled.
Economic drain on North Korea
Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, said the North is apparently stepping up pressure to try to get Seoul to conduct the drills in a low-key manner. Analysts believe the drills are an economic drain on North Korea because they often force it to respond by mobilizing troops and conducting additional exercises.
North Korea has a history of launching provocations and scrapping cooperation accords with South Korea to protest the annual drills. The country issued near-daily threats during last year's drills. It also cancelled planned family reunions last September after accusing Seoul of preparing for war drills and other hostile acts.
North Korea last month approved a resumption of the reunion program, in the latest in a series of recent conciliatory gestures. Analysts have said North Korea needs improved ties with Seoul to help attract foreign investment and aid, and that it is unlikely to cancel this month's reunions.
The Korean Peninsula officially remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.
Ordinary citizens in the two Koreas are not allowed to exchange phone calls, letters and emails. About 22,000 Koreans have had brief family reunions — 18,000 in person and the others by video — during periods of detente, but no one has had a second chance to meet their relatives.
"I feel pain for the families who must be looking forward to the reunions," said Kwon Joon Young, a 22-year-old university student in the South. "I hope North Korea stops its childish acts and realizes this issue has nothing to do with military drills."