North Korea postpones family reunions with South

SEOUL - Pyongyang said on Saturday it would indefinitely postpone reunions for families split apart by the Korean War, cancelling a landmark event due in days and leaving relatives separated for six decades bitterly disappointed.

The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted the government as saying Seoul's "hostile" policy was to blame, singling out its joint military exercises with the United States and a recent crackdown on allegedly pro-Pyongyang leftists.

But analysts believe the move is designed to place pressure on the South to resume cross-border tours to a scenic resort that is an important source of revenue for the North's cash-strapped communist regime.

"We postpone the impending reunions of separated families until a normal atmosphere is created for talks and negotiations to be able to move forward," the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said.

"As long as the South's conservatives deal (with) inter-Korean relations hostility and abuse...such a basic humanitarian issue as family reunions cannot be resolved."

South Korean government officials were not immediately available for comment.

The two sides had earlier agreed to hold six days of reunions at the North's Mount Kumgang resort from September 25 to 30.

The final lists, whittled down by the Red Cross from 500 candidates, carried the names of 96 South Koreans and 100 North Koreans, although the actual attendance at the reunion was expected to be higher because each selected candidate could take a number of relatives.

The highly symbolic event would have been the first reunions in three years for families separated for decades by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The reunion programme had been suspended after the North's shelling of a South Korean border island in November 2010.

Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said Pyongyang was using the family reunions as a ploy to put pressure on Seoul to resume tours to Kumgang.

"Pyongyang is seeking to use the family reunions as a leverage to force Seoul to agree to resume tours to Mount Kumgang", Yang told AFP.

The South suspended the tours to the mountainous resort in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.

Seoul says it won't restart the tours to Kumgang, a cash cow for the North as it develops nuclear weapons and missiles, unless Pyongyang apologises explicitly over the killing of the Southern tourist.

'Disappointed beyond description' 

Kang Neung-Hwan, 92, who hoped to see his son living in the North, said the news hit him hard.

"I am greatly disappointed. It's increasingly painful for me to wait to see my son," Kang told Yonhap news agency.

Koh Jeong-Sam said his 95-year-old mother had purchased various gifts she wanted to bring to her sisters living in the North.

"My mother was disappointed beyond description," he said.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the Korean War, which sealed the peninsula's division. Most have died without having had a chance to reunite with family members last seen six decades ago.

About 72,000 South Koreans - nearly half of them aged over 80 - are still alive and wait-listed for a chance to join the highly sought-after family reunion events, which select only up to a few hundred participants each time.

At the emotional, often tearful reunions, North and South Koreans typically meet in the North for two or three days before the South Koreans head home again.

The first reunions in 1985 coincided with a short-lived thaw in North-South relations and they were discontinued for the next 15 years.

A historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 saw the programme resumed in earnest and an estimated 17,000 people have been reunited since then.

The last such meeting took place in late 2010, before the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong island.

Inter-Korean relations have showed signs of improving recently after months of heightened military tensions that followed the North's nuclear test in February.