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North Korea threatens to scrap deal on family reunions

Demands US cancel annual military exercise

SEOUL — North Korea on Thursday threatened to cancel reunions of families separated by the Korean War, accusing the United States of flying nuclear-capable B-52s on a training mission over the Korean Peninsula.

North and South Korea agreed Wednesday to hold the family reunions Feb. 20-25, when hundreds of elderly Koreans would be allowed to meet their relatives for the first time since the war ended in 1953.

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The deal was widely seen as a sign that relations between the two countries may be warming after threats of war followed the North’s nuclear test early last year. If held, the reunions would be the first since 2010, when the humanitarian program was halted amid souring relations.

But Thursday, North Korea warned that it could scrap the agreement unless South Korea canceled joint annual military exercises it planned to start with the United States the last week of this month.

Family reunions remain an emotional issue for Koreans. The three-year Korean War ended in a truce, leaving millions of people separated from their relatives across the most heavily armed border in the world. No telephone, letter, or e-mail exchanges are allowed between the citizens of the two countries. And for the separated families, the occasional government-arranged reunions are virtually the only chance to meet long-lost relatives.

“How can they talk about trust and improvement of relations while they are opening their sky for a fleet of American nuclear-capable strategic bombers?” the North’s official Korean Central Television quoted its National Defense Commission as saying in a statement Thursday. “We will not just sit and do nothing about this farce.”

The commission, the top ruling agency in Pyongyang — and headed by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un — said that B-52s ran practice bombing sorties on an island off the west coast of South Korea as Red Cross officials from both Koreas were discussing the family reunion deal Wednesday.

There was no immediate comment available from the US command in Seoul. But South Korean government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a single B-52 flew a training mission off the country’s coast Wednesday.

The US Pacific Air Force Command declined to comment on operational details of missions but said it “has maintained a rotational strategic bomber presence in the region for more than a decade.”

“These aircraft, and the men and women who fly them, provide a significant capability that enables our readiness and commitment to extended deterrence, provides assurances to our allies, and strengthens regional security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” its public affairs office said in an e-mail.

Kim Min Seok, a spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry, said that Seoul and Washington would press ahead with their joint military exercises regardless of the North’s warning.

Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae, South Korea’s top North Korea policy maker, urged the North not to cancel family reunions.

“If an agreement is reached and then retracted, we cannot move forward,” he said.

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