SEOUL -- North Korea on Saturday indefinitely postponed reunions of nearly 200 families separated during the Korean War, just four days before the long-awaited meetings were scheduled to take place.
The cancellation, which could jeopardize a nascent thaw in relations between North and South Korea, was immediately decried as "an inhumane act" by a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Last month, the two Koreas had agreed to resume reunions beginning on Wednesday. Working under a tight schedule, Pyongyang and Seoul last week had exchanged 196 names of family members who would meet at North Korea's scenic Mt. Kumgang resort.
Millions of Koreans have been separated from relatives by the tense demilitarized zone that has remained in place between the two countries since the 1950-'53 Korean War. In 2000, the nations agreed to bring selected families together, three or four times a year. However, the reunions were stopped in 2010 after the South accused North Korean forces of sinking one of its warships.
"We are postponing the separated family reunions until a normal atmosphere is created for talks and negotiations," North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement Saturday, via the government news agency. "South Korea's conservative government has been abusing inter-Korean dialogues and negotiations as a means to seek confrontation with us. We cannot expect normal dialogue and development in North-South relations in such a warlike atmosphere."
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which oversees North-South relations, expressed deep regret over the North's action.
The "North's postponement has shattered the hopes and expectations of some 200 separate families who were looking forward to meeting their lost families," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eyi-do said. "Their decision, which has hurt all the separate families and the people, deserves denunciation as an inhumane act."
More than 72,000 people in South Korea have signed up to meet relatives in the North. About 80% of the registrants are over the age of 70.
Pyongyang's sudden announcement came as a blow to families who had been eagerly waiting to be reunited with loved ones.
Koh Jong-sam, 66, son of 95-year-old Kim Sung-yoon, who was the oldest person selected to meet relatives, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that his mother was "extremely disappointed."
"She bought many gifts and was looking forward to the meeting," Koh told Yonhap. "North Korea's unilateral decision has hurt us, beyond description."
Analysts said Pyongyang's decision may be a ploy to have an upper hand in negotiations to restart a halted inter-nation tour program at the Mt. Kumgang resort. In the statement Saturday, the North also postponed planned Oct. 2 negotiations on reopening Kumgang.
The mountain resort was open to South Korean tourists from 1998 until its closure in 2008 after a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier for allegedly entering a military area.
"North Korea always wanted to link resuming Mt. Kumgan tours with resumption of separate family reunions, but the South Korean government has been passive on Mt. Kumgang," North Korea studies professor Kim Yong-hyun at Dongguk University in Seoul told South Korean news channel, YTN. "The postponement this time is about the same motive."
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