SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea threatened Thursday to cancel a reunion later this month of Korean War-divided families because of upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills, causing frustration in Seoul only one day after the rivals agreed on dates for the emotional meetings.
The apparent about-face fits a pattern analysts say North Korea often follows of agreeing to things Seoul covets and then pulling back until Pyongyang gets what it wants -- in this case a ratcheting down of the massive military drills by Seoul and Washington that are seen as a huge drain on impoverished North Korea's military.
The rival Koreas decided Wednesday to restart the family reunions, which haven't been held since 2010, from Feb. 20-25. Before the agreement, many in Seoul were skeptical that Pyongyang would allow the reunions anytime soon because of its anger over the annual springtime military drills that are also scheduled later this month. Pyongyang calls the drills preparation for war, while the allies say the exercises are purely defensive.
North Korea has a history of launching provocations and scrapping cooperation accords with South Korea to protest the allies' springtime drills. The country used last year's drills as a pretext for churning out near-daily threats, including vows of nuclear war against Seoul and Washington. It also canceled planned family reunions last September after accusing Seoul of preparing for war drills and other hostile acts.
On Thursday, the North's powerful National Defense Commission issued a statement warning 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.
The spokesman said North Korea "cannot help reviewing whether to implement" the accord on family reunions if "viciously defaming of our supreme leadership and groundless slandering of our system" continue. North Korea reacts with sensitivity to any perceived negative comments about its leadership, including in South Korea's vibrant media.
The statement cited criticism of leader Kim's recent visit to an orphanage in Pyongyang, and was an apparent reference to critical South Korean media coverage that said Kim and his entourage wore their shoes inside a room. Koreans traditionally remove their shoes before entering living spaces.
Despite the North's threat, South Korea's Defense Ministry said the allies will go ahead with the weekslong drills as scheduled.
Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, said Pyongyang is apparently stepping up pressure in order to try to get Seoul to conduct the drills in a low-key manner.
Analysts believe that the annual U.S.-South Korean drills are an economic drain on North Korea, because they often force it to respond by mobilizing troops and conducting additional exercises.
Chang Yong Seok of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University said there is a chance North Korea will cancel part of the reunions because the military drills are expected to begin before the reunions end.
North Korea last month approved a resumption of the reunion program in the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures the country has taken in recent months. North Korea has recently ratcheted down its typical harsh rhetoric against South Korea, a sharp departure from a year ago, when it threatened Washington and Seoul with war and vowed to restart its production of fuel for nuclear weapons.
Analysts say North Korea needs improved ties with Seoul to help attract foreign investment and aid to improve living conditions and revive its sagging economy, and that it is unlikely to abruptly cancel this month's reunions.
The Korean Peninsula officially remains at state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, 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 both 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.
There's frustration in Seoul over a perception North Korea plays politics with the deeply emotional meetings of elderly Koreans who haven't seen their loved ones in decades.
"I feel pain for the families who must be looking forward to the reunion," 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."