North Korea demanded that South Korea cancel or delay the upcoming joint military exercises with the United States until after the scheduled family reunions, which currently overlap with the drills, casting a shadow on the much-anticipated humanitarian event.
The two Koreas have agreed to hold reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War next week, between Feb. 20 and 25. And despite fierce protests from Pyongyang, the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command on Feb. 10 announced that joint military exercises will begin on Feb. 24.
Seoul and Pyongyang failed to reach an agreement at the inter-Korean meeting on Wednesday, held in the heavily guarded border village of Panmunjom, despite talks lasting hours, which ended around midnight.
The rare meeting of high-ranking officials was held at the request of North Korea. The regime wanted the meeting to be held in secret in the country, though South Korea refused.
“During a morning session, North Korea repeated its demands written in the open letter [released in January], which called for scrapping the planned South Korea-U.S. joint military drills and ceasing mutual slandering,” an official of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told reporters yesterday.
“But in the afternoon session, they demanded we delay the drills until after the family reunions.”
The reunions are scheduled to take place at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea as part of the Communist state’s attempt to thaw years of tense relations.
However, in the past North Korea has almost customarily complained about two annual drills, called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which are scheduled to run until April 18 this year.
South Korea and the United States have maintained that the drills are defensive in nature, though Pyongyang has continued to decry them as “war practice targeting Pyongyang.”
In March, during joint exercises in South Korean waters, North Korea raised its military alert to the highest level and cut off its military hotlines with South Korea, raising the tension on the Korean Peninsula to a fever pitch.
South Korea, however, has rejected the call to postpone the drills, the official stated.
“We clarified that the family reunions are a purely humanitarian issue, separate from any political matters,” the official said. “So there should be no delay or cancellation of the drills.”
Besides the military exercises, the North also asked the South Korean government to control local media critical of the Communist regime.
“The North’s side claimed that our government should control the media, tackling the reports on their ‘utmost dignity’ or ‘political system,’?” the official said. “But we clarified that there could be no control in the country on media by the government.”
On the South Korean side, negotiators presented President Park Geun-hye’s trust-building process to the North, the official said.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was also discussed.
“We brought up the denuclearization of North Korea, urging them to prove it by actions, not words,” the official said. “But North Korea claimed that the matter is not that simple because they have the legacy of founder Kim Il Sung [who called for the nuclear armament to fulfill]. They also claimed the matter is not an issue to be discussed between the two Koreas.”
Still, the North did not press for economic assistance or the reopening of the shuttered Mount Kumgang resort, the official said. Nor did the regime mention easing the so-called May 24th sanctions, which froze all government-level assistance and cooperation with the state.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed yesterday that the joint military exercises would be conducted as scheduled.
“Both South Korea and the United States agreed on the schedule and the scale of the drills even 10 months prior, and the U.S. soldiers on the mainland are already preparing for this,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the Defense Ministry. “It is not right to connect the two issues - the military exercises, a national security issue, and the family unions, a matter with humanitarian purposes.”
According to the Ministry of Unification, no further talks were arranged. “We did not have many expectations for the talks at the beginning because a one-day meeting with North Korea is too short,” a Blue House official told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “We would be able to make a significant deal if we go through several talks later.”
While there are concerns that Pyongyang could cancel the family reunions, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae confirmed yesterday he would push forward with the schedule.
“The family reunions will be carried out without any changes,” Ryoo said.
BY KIM HEE-JIN http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=2984950&cloc=joongangdaily