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N. Korea backs off, agrees to honor family reunion deal

SEOUL — North Korea agreed Friday to honor its earlier agreement to allow hundreds of elderly people separated by the Korean War six decades ago to reunite with their long-lost relatives later this month, officials in Seoul said.

North Korea had threatened to scrap the reunions unless South Korea canceled the joint annual military exercises it planned to begin with the United States on Feb. 24. During a high-level inter-Korean government meeting on the border Wednesday, the North said that if the South could not cancel the drills, it should at least postpone them for a few days so they would not overlap with the family reunions slated for Feb. 20-25.

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But during the second round of border talks Friday, North Korea retracted its demand and agreed to hold the reunions as scheduled, Kim Kyu-hyun, the chief South Korean delegate, said during a news conference.

The softening of the North’s stance came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry rejected Pyongyang’s demand. He urged the North not to use the defensive military exercises as an excuse to interfere with a humanitarian project.

If held, the highly emotional family reunions would mark a notable sign that relations were thawing on the peninsula after years of high tensions triggered by the North’s nuclear and missile tests, which have resulted in UN sanctions.

Kim said his delegation painstakingly explained President Park Geun-hye’s “trust politics” to North Koreans. Since her inauguration last February, Park has said that South Korea would help the impoverished North with trade and aid — but not until the North takes meaningful actions to show that it can be trusted.

“We told them that the family reunions could be an important first step of the trust-building process,” Kim said.

The United States and South Korea remained concerned about what South Korean officials called “mixed signals” from the North, which has been calling for dialogue even as it has continued to expand its nuclear and missile programs. They feared that North Korea, as it has in the past, might use the prospect of easing tensions as political bait to win concessions from Washington and Seoul or as a smoke screen for fresh aggression.

Such a deep-seated skepticism of the North Korean regime formed the backdrop when Park called for “a trust-building process” and when Washington, as Kerry repeated on Thursday in Seoul, insisted that it would hold no more “talks for the sake of talks” with Pyongyang.

The border talks this week marked the highest-level dialogue between the two Koreas in seven years. They were first proposed by the North, whose leader, Kim Jong Un, called for a reduction in military tensions and improved ties with the South during his New Year’s Day speech.

On Jan. 6, Park suggested that the two Koreas take “a good first step with family reunions.” Earlier this month, they agreed to hold the reunions, which were last held in 2010. Then, the North began threatening to cancel them, arguing that the annual military exercises raised tensions and hurt the political mood for the reunions.

Washington and Seoul viewed the North Korean demand for a delay of the war games as part of its long-standing attempt to disrupt their military alliance.

In their border meeting Friday, the two Koreas also agreed to stop slandering each other, Kim Kyu-hyun said. They also agreed to hold high-level talks again, but did not set a date for the next meeting, he said.

North Korea had earlier made another demand the South would not accept: It wanted Seoul to gag its conservative domestic media and commentators whose criticism North Korean officials said had hurt the prestige of their leader.

Some South Korean media and commentators have turned more hostile toward Kim Jong Un and become more skeptical about the stability of his regime following the purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek, an uncle and presumed mentor of Kim, in December.

To fend off the North Korean demand for press censorship, Kim Kyu-hyun said he quoted President Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Family reunions remain an emotional issue for Koreans, and they are considered a key barometer of relations between the nations. No telephone, letter, and e-mail exchanges are allowed between the citizens of the two countries. And for the families separated by the war, the occasional government-arranged reunions are virtually the only chance separated relatives have to see each other.

South Korea has sent several trucks and 100 officials and workers to clear a heavy snowfall that has recently blanketed the Diamond Mountain resort in southeast North Korea, where the reunions are supposed to be held.

Another advance team of South Koreans planned to travel to the North Korean resort Saturday to prepare for the reunions, said Kim Eui-do, a spokesman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul.

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