North Korea on Friday called for a resumption of reunions for families separated since the Korean War. The seemingly conciliatory gesture increases the stakes for South Korea if it goes ahead with planned war games with the United States next month, which North Korea has warned against.
Erratic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also gave the go-ahead last year for families divided 60 years ago to gather at a resort in the North. But the rare opportunity for the aging Koreans on both sides to connect with long-lost loved ones was canceled at the last minute in retaliation for what Pyongyang claimed was bellicose behavior in Seoul.
"The North Korean Red Cross proposed holding the reunions at the Mt. Kumgang resort 'at a convenient time' after the Lunar New Year holiday," South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported, citing the North's official Korean Central News Agency. Yonhap said the invitation was conveyed to the South Korean Red Cross by telephone.
Koreans separated from relatives by the heavily fortified demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel were last allowed to visit each other in late 2010.
The two governments agreed in August to allow 100 families from each side of the border to visit relatives at Mt. Kumgang the next month, but Pyongyang indefinitely postponed the emotional gathering just four days before the elderly war survivors were to meet.
North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea at the time accused South Korea of "abusing inter-Korean dialogues and negotiations as a means to seek confrontation with us." It described North-South relations as having degenerated into "a warlike atmosphere."
South Korea's Unification Ministry called the last-minute scuttling of the cherished reunions "an inhumane act."
Antagonism between the two Koreas reached a crescendo last spring after tightened international sanctions hit Pyongyang's already devastated economy in punishment for nuclear weapons testing. And North Korea threatened to attack the United States, Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons in retaliation for the annual war games, which the North sees as practice for an invasion.
Sin Son Ho, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, made clear at a rare news conference at the world body headquarters in New York on Friday that his government remains fiercely opposed to the military maneuvers conducted off the coast of the Korean Peninsula each year.
"If the 'coordination' and 'cooperation' with the U.S. are so precious and valuable, they had better hold the exercises in the secluded area or in the U.S. far away from the territorial land, sea and air of the Korean peninsula," Sin said, according to Reuters news agency.
He raised the specter of another tense standoff during the February and March exercises with a warning that Pyongyang is prepared to repulse aggressions, with nuclear arms if necessary.
"Our nuclear force serves as a means for deterring the U.S. from posing a nuclear threat," Sin said. "We courteously propose the South side not to resort to reckless acts of bringing dangerous nuclear strike means of the U.S. to South Korea and to areas around it."
Communist North Korea and the U.S.-allied South have been bitterly divided since the superpower proxy war of 1950-53, which ended with a cease-fire but no peace treaty.
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