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Asia

Seoul furious at about-face on reunions

North Korea has staged a charm offensive to buy time for its weapons programs, but the regime appears to be sliding back into a more confrontational mode. Families divided since 1953 are paying the price.

Just days before Korean families who have been separated for 60 years were due to be reunited - albeit briefly - Pyongyang had a change of heart. More than 200 people who have been kept apart by the Demilitarized Zone that bisects the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953 will not now be able to meet over six days from Wednesday at the Mount Kumgang holiday resort.

The South Korean Unification Ministry reacted with barely concealed fury at Pyongyang's decision, announced on Saturday, describing it as "inhumane" and saying the North had "broken the hearts" of families desperate to be reunited. Of the 96 in the South, most were aged between 80 and 95 and one of the family members died a few days before the North's announcement.

In this image taken from video North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, smiles as he waves to spectators and participants of a military parade celebrating the 65th anniversary of the country's founding, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT pixel

Kim Jong Un assumed power after the death of his father in December, 2011

North Korea in August first proposed a resumption of meetings that have taken place 18 times, most recently in November 2010, and the gesture was seen as a further sign that the regime of Kim Jong Un might be shifting to a more conciliatory approach to its neighbors.

Rhetoric toned down

It had, after all, toned down the angry rhetoric of the early months of the year, during which it responded to sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council after the test launch of a missile and a third underground nuclear test by threatening to unleash missiles at North America and turn the South Korean capital into "a sea of fire." In August, it reopened the border to permit South Korean business owners to return to the Kaesong industrial park and restart production at the facility, which employs North Korean workers and is a major source of income for Pyongyang.

But analysts have always regarded North Korea's actions warily and warned that the regime could go back on its word in an instant. Unfortunately for the families hoping to see their long-lost relatives, the planned reunions appear to have fallen victim to the North's geopolitical brinkmanship.

Pyongyang claimed the meetings were cancelled because the South Korean government of Park Geun-hye had "abused" the reunions by describing them as a victory of Seoul's hard-line approach to inter-Korean relations. It also accused the South of "hostile tactics that hurt our dignity and pride" as well as "barbaric repression" in South Korean of "patriots."

Lee Geun-soon (R) combs through a list on a computer screen at the Korean Red Cross headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on 20 August 2013 (Photo: dpa - Bildfunk)

Families are sure to be disappointed; here a woman looks to see if her name is on a list to meet family in the North

That claim was in reference to the arrest of Lee Seok-ki, a member of the far-left United Progressive Party, on charges of planning to overthrow the South Korean government and to assist a North Korean attack on the South. Lee is in custody in the South and awaiting trial.

"The North is quick to condemn the South at any opportunity, but they do not really have any grounds to do so," Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Meiji University, told Deutsche Welle. "They made it appear that they were giving ground on the reunions and on Kaesong, but it seems to me they were only doing so to withdraw those promises in the future."

Buying time

Professor Ito said the North may simply have been acting more reasonably in recent months to buy time for its scientists to make further developments in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

On Tuesday, two US nuclear reports said the North appears to have beaten international sanctions to acquire the technical capability to produce key components for centrifuges used to enrich uranium for its nuclear weapons program.

In an interview with Japan's Kyodo News, Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear proliferation, said it was likely that the North had been able to make powerful rare-earth magnets that are used in high-performance centrifuges, an extremely hard steel alloy known as maraging steel, vacuum pumps and frequency inverters that control the speed of the electric motor at the base of a centrifuge.

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, said Pyongyang going back on its word on the reunions was just the latest tit-for-tat move from a regime that is well aware of what it faces.

Fears of regime collapse

South Korean Kim Sung-Bok (R), 90, meets his North Korean daughter Kim Hee-Sook (L), 61, during a family reunion after being separated for 60 years following the Korean War on November 3, 2010 in Mount Kumgang, North Korea. (Photo: Kim Chang-Gil-Korea Pool/Getty Images)

The last family reunion between North and South Korea took place in 2010

"South Korea and the US do not want to push the North too hard because that could cause the regime to collapse, leading to civil war," he told Deutsche Welle.

"They're treating it with kid gloves, which is perhaps not the worst tactic in dealing with a regime such as this, but it does permit Pyongyang to buy time."

And Kim knows that its ideological enemies don't want his regime to collapse and that he can leverage that knowledge.

"That allows the North to play hardball whenever it wants to," said Professor Dujarric. "Sometimes that works and they get concessions from the South or elsewhere; sometimes it doesn't and things deteriorate.

"But they have been doing a similar dance for the last 20 years or so and I see no likelihood that won't continue until the North Korean regime goes down the drain, whether that happens tomorrow or 20 years' time."

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