The two Koreas agreed on Friday to proceed with reunions of family members separated since the 1950-53 Korean War, easing fears that they’d be cancelled over joint U.S.-ROK military drills.
The agreement, the conclusion of high-level talks that began Wednesday, comes after the North insisted that the drills, set to start February 24, either be cancelled or postponed until after the February 20-25 reunions. The South refused, maintaining that the two issues were separate, and the apparent stalemate had left family members set to take part in the reunions worried.
However, Friday’s agreement seemingly confirmed that the reunions will take place as planned. The South’s chief delegate Kim Kyou-hyun also told reporters that the two sides agreed to cease slandering each other and hold additional talks at a later, yet-to-be-determined date.
The reunions between family members separated by the North-South divide were a regular occurrence starting in 2000, but have not taken place since 2010 due to a deterioration in relations.
The annual U.S.-ROK Foal Eagle and Key Resolve drills have typically been a source of tensions between the North, which calls them a precursor to invasion, and the South, which says they are for defense purposes. Last year the North responded to the drills, which are set to continue through April 18 this year, by announcing the abrogation of non-aggression pacts between it and the South, as well as closing the inter-Korean industrial park at Kaesong and the military hotline between itself and the South.
Both were later restored.
Wednesday’s talks were the first high-level discussions between the two sides in seven years. The North canceled a planned round of reunions in September only days ahead of time, adding to concerns that the situation would be repeated.
However, observers urged against overconfidence in the aftermath of this agreement.
“Obviously this is good news, and from a humanitarian perspective we should all be glad that displaced families will have an all-too-rare chance to meet,” said Chris Green of The Daily NK.
“However, it is important not to overstate the importance of the steps taken today, and to recall North Korea’s long tradition of seeking to foster discontent in South Korean society.”
However, Green said that “South Korea’s acceptance of North’s Korea’s insistence on ‘no slander’ implies a flexibility of purpose on both sides that may allow for further progress going forward.”
Prof. Leonid Petrov of the Australian National University had an even more sobering take on the news.
“I wouldn’t bet on the success of this initiative,” he told NK News. “Many things may happen in a week’s time. And the last-minute cancelation of reunions would provide each party with the precious sense of moral superiority over the other.”
However, not all assessments by observers were bleak.
“It is a welcome development that the family reunions will go forward,” said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group. “The DPRK’s efforts to link humanitarian issues and other inter-Korean issues to the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises are counter-productive.”
Pinkston said that attempts by the North to paint the exercises as a prelude to invasion do not make sense, as the U.S. would face condemnation, and worse, from key allies if it launched an unprovoked attack on the North.
“If the U.S. were to act in this way, the coalition partners would desert (it) and the U.S. would be isolated as a pariah state,” he said.
Pinkston also expressed hopes that Pyongyang would de-link other issues from the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises.