North Korea

North Korea okays family reunions despite Southern drills with US

Talks see North Korea allow meetings of divided kin despite South's military exercises with US

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 4:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 12:36am

High-level talks between the rival Koreas ended yesterday with a rare agreement to go ahead as planned with a reunion for divided families, despite the North's objections to overlapping South Korean-US military drills.

The two sides also agreed to stop exchanging verbal insults and to continue their nascent dialogue at a convenient date, according to a joint statement read in Seoul by South Korea's chief talks delegate Kim Kyou-hyun.

The agreement, which was also carried on the North's official KCNA news agency, suggested a significant concession by North Korea, which had wanted the South to postpone the February 24 start of its annual drills with the US until after the reunion.

The South had refused, arguing that the two issues - one humanitarian and one military - should not be linked.

The apparent concession and the commitment to continue what has been the highest-level official contact between the two countries since 2007 will fuel hopes that they might be entering a period of genuinely constructive engagement.

"Agreement was reached today after North Korea accepted our position that the family reunion event is important ... as the first step to build trust," Kim said.

It followed talks on Wednesday and yesterday in the border village of Panmunjom where the armistice ending the 1950-53 Korean war was signed.

The dialogue was the first substantive follow-up to statements by the leaders of both countries - South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the North's Kim Jong-un - professing a desire for improved inter-Korean ties.

There had already been signs of a shift in the North's position at Wednesday's first round, when it demanded the military drills be postponed - a change from its usual position that they be cancelled entirely.

Seoul's unequivocal rejection of any change to the drills' schedule because of the family reunion was lent weight on Thursday by visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Addressing a press briefing in Seoul, Kerry urged Pyongyang to act with "human decency" and not try to use "one [issue] as an excuse to somehow condition the other".

Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 conflict, and the vast majority have since died without having had any communication at all with surviving relatives.