By Hyung-Jin Kim
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North and South Korea agreed in a rare high-level meeting Friday to stop insulting each other and to go ahead with planned reunions of Korean War-divided families next week despite a dispute over upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Highly emotional reunions of long-separated families haven’t been held in three years.
The agreements reflect recent attempts by the rival Koreas to ease animosity. Analysts, however, say ties could quickly sour again because the countries may disagree over how to implement the arrangement. Authoritarian North Korea, for instance, is demanding that the South Korean government control media reports critical of the North’s leadership, something democratic Seoul has said it cannot do.
A year after repeatedly threatening nuclear war and vowing to bolster its atomic capability, North Korea has recently pushed for better ties with Seoul, agreeing to arrange reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. Analysts say the impoverished North needs good relations with Seoul to win outside investment and aid.
But the country is still sending mixed signals. It earlier threatened to stop the family reunions set for Feb. 20 through Feb. 25 in protest of U.S.-South Korean military drills scheduled to start later this month. A U.S. research institute said Thursday that North Korea has accelerated work at a site used for three previous underground nuclear test explosions, though a new test doesn’t appear imminent.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warmly welcomed the agreement, calling it “a step in the right direction,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“The secretary general encourages both sides to keep up the momentum by continuing high-level engagement and taking further steps to build confidence and trust,” Nesirky said. “Tension between the two Koreas has been high and inter-Korean relations have remained strained for far too long.”
Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, was “particularly encouraged” that the agreement followed his appeal to Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, “to show flexibility and to decouple humanitarian matters, such as family reunions, from political and security matters,” Nesirky said.
The meeting of senior officials from the Koreas at a border village on Friday was the second this week. A meeting on Wednesday — the countries’ highest-level talks in years — achieved little progress because of North Korea’s demand that South Korea delay the drills’ start until the reunions end, according to South Korean officials. North Korea calls the exercises a rehearsal for invasion, while South Korea and the United States say they are defensive in nature.
The countries’ negotiators both made concessions to achieve the agreements.
Chief South Korean delegate Kim Kyou-hyun told reporters in Seoul that North Korea withdrew its insistence that the reunions be delayed because of the drills. A joint statement released by the South Korean government and North Korea’s state media also showed that South Korea agreed to a North Korean proposal that the sides stop vilifying each other, which North Korea has demanded over the past weeks in protest of South Korean media reports critical of its leader, Kim Jong Un.
“It’s still ambiguous how they can stop mutual insults, but the fact that South Korea agreed to it is meaningful,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. He said top South Korean officials are expected to stop making comments that could provoke North Korea.
Chang Yong Seok of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University said North Korea may still disrupt the family reunions if South Korea’s conservative newspapers publish reports critical of the North’s leadership — something they routinely do — before the reunions start. “North Korea won’t put up with that,” he said.
North Korea has a track record of launching surprise provocations and scrapping cooperation projects with South Korea when it fails to win concessions. It canceled family reunions at the last minute in September when it accused Seoul of preparing war drills and other hostile acts.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se warned North Korea against any possible aggression, saying it should not use the military exercises as an excuse to stay away from talks or to delay attempts to improve ties. (end)
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nationspot.