Barely a day after the two Koreas agreed to resume reunions for divided families, North Korea threatened on Thursday to renege on the deal unless the South scraps looming military drills with the United States.
“It’s outrageous that [South Korea] is pushing ahead with aggressive war manoeuvring at a time when both sides reached a crucial agreement to realise national reconciliation and co-operation,” said the North’s top military body, the National Defence Commission (NDC).
“Dialogue and exercises of war of aggression ... cannot go hand in hand,” it added.
In a rare example of cross-border co-operation, officials from North and South Korea agreed on Wednesday to hold a reunion on February 15-20 for several hundred relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
It would be the first such event in more than three years, and the accord was hailed as a possible harbinger of warmer ties between the arch rivals.
But Thursday’s NDC statement appeared to back up those who had warned that Pyongyang would use the reunion agreement as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Seoul.
South Korea and the United States are set to start a series of annual military exercises at the end of the month, and the North has repeatedly demanded that they be called off.
The NDC voiced particular outrage over what it said were US B-52 bombers “carrying out nuclear strike drills” off the Korean peninsula on Wednesday as the talks on the reunions were being held.
The South’s Yonhap news agency cited a military source as confirming that a single B-52 had flown an unspecified exercise off the west coast.
The US Pacific Command said in a statement that it has maintained a “rotational strategic bomber presence” in the region for more than a decade because such flights strengthened “regional security and stability”.
The South’s Defence Ministry vowed that the joint drills would go ahead, and reiterated Seoul and Washington’s position that the exercises and the family reunions should not be linked.
“We will proceed with our drills normally, regardless of the reunions for separated families,” said ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok.
Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the South’s unification minister, urged the North to honour the deal on a family reunion event.
“It’s our position that an agreement must be honoured under any circumstances,” he told reporters.
At a press briefing in Washington after the agreement on resuming reunions was reached, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed that she was “not at all” aware of any move to call off the exercises.
“These exercises occur around the same time every year and are a clear demonstration of the US commitment to the alliance [with South Korea],” she said.
As well as the joint drills, the NDC also condemned “slanderous” attacks in the South Korean media, with special reference to reports of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to an orphanage.
A picture of Kim wearing shoes while interacting with the orphans in their dormitory was pilloried in the South. The leading conservative South Korean daily, the Chosun Ilbo, said it displayed an “unimaginable” lack of manners.
Koreans never wear outdoor shoes inside the home – especially not in living areas.
“We cannot but reconsider the implementation of an agreement that was already reached as long as there is a continued move to hurt the dignity of our supreme leadership and slander our system,” said the NDC statement.
The annual South-US drills, which Pyongyang routinely condemns as rehearsals for invasion, are always a diplomatic flashpoint on the Korean peninsula.
Last year’s exercises resulted in an unusually sharp and extended surge in military tensions that saw North Korea issue apocalyptic threats of nuclear war.