SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea on Saturday indefinitely postponed reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War scheduled to start Wednesday, an apparent setback after weeks of improving ties following springtime threats of war.
North Korea said the six days of reunions, which last happened three years ago, could not be held because of South Korean conservatives' "reckless and vicious confrontation racket" against Pyongyang, a claim that North Korea routinely makes. It also vowed, in similarly familiar rhetoric, to "take strong and decisive counteractions against the South Korean puppet regime's ever-escalating war provocations."
The development, which an analyst called a North Korean attempt to gain an advantage in negotiations with Seoul, is a twist in what had been gradually easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang tempering its threats and pursuing talks meant to restart various inter-Korean cooperation projects.
The biggest highlight is the recent return of North and South Koreans to a jointly run factory park just across the border in North Korea after a five-month shutdown.
Pyongyang's announcement was likely linked to its frustration over delayed talks with Seoul to resume lucrative, jointly run tours to a North Korean mountain resort, and to a perception that Seoul wasn't supporting the North's push to restart stalled international aid-for-nuclear-disarmament negotiations, said Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.
"The family reunion is something that South Korea wants. It is not surprising that Pyongyang is now using this as a bargaining chip," Yoo said.
An unidentified spokesman for the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement that the family reunions will be postponed until a "normal atmosphere" for dialogue returns.
The statement expressed anger over U.S.-South Korean military drills and what it called Seoul's crackdown on liberals and an arms build-up "with its American master." Similar military drills — as well as U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's February nuclear test — were also cited by Pyongyang in March and April for its weekslong barrage of threats, which included vows of nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul.
The North also bristled against the view in South Korea that Pyongyang is desperate for the cash that would come from the resumption of the Diamond Mountain resort tours, which were stopped in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist. It said it would not hold talks on the tours.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification, which is responsible for ties with the North, denounced the decision to postpone the reunions for political reasons as inhumane and unacceptable. A South Korean delegation responsible for preparing for the reunions is currently in the North, the ministry said. It wasn't immediately clear when it would return.
The reunions and the other improvements in the rivals' relations had been greeted with relief in Seoul. Many South Koreans have had little or no word about their loved ones for decades.
But there has also been wariness because of what analysts call a North Korean tendency to follow provocations with outreach and diplomacy meant to win much-needed aid.
The Korean War separated millions of families, and huge numbers of refugees moved both north and south. Past reunions provided scenes of intense emotion, bringing together weeping family members desperate for details and news. They were separated again a few days later.