SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday dismissed a South Korean proposal to resume reunions of families separated by war, but used an unusually mild tone that indicated it still wants better ties with its rival to help boost its struggling economy.
The reunion program has been stalled amid tension between the rival Koreas since late 2010. The Koreas had agreed to resume the humanitarian program last September but North Korea abruptly canceled the plan.
North Korea wants to link the reunions to a restart of a lucrative joint tourism project at its scenic Diamond Mountain, according to Seoul officials. But South Korea wants to deal separately with the tourism project, which provided a legitimate source of hard currency for the impoverished North before it was suspended when North Korean soldiers fatally shot a South Korean tourist there in 2008.
South Korea offered this week to hold talks on Friday on resuming the reunions around the Lunar New Year holiday later this month, saying it could help improve strained ties. The Lunar New Year is celebrated by both Koreas and is traditionally a time when relatives get together.
North Korea responded Thursday that the talks could take place "at a good season" if the South is willing to discuss "the proposals of our side," an apparent reference to the tourism project.
The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea also said the reunions could not occur this month because of annual springtime military drills planned by South Korea and the United States, saying the separated families could not have "reunions in peace amid gunfire," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
However, North Korea's statement did not include its typical harsh rhetoric against Seoul, and proposed that the countries could meet later if conditions are met. Analysts said this suggests that North Korea doesn't want to completely cut off ties with South Korea because it needs outside investment and assistance to achieve leader Kim Jong Un's vow of developing the economy and improving living standards.