South Korean Unification Ministry/AP
South Korea delegation member Lee Duk-haeng, r., shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Yong-il at Panmunjom, in the border zone that divides the two Koreas. The North and South agreed Wednesday to hold the first reunions of war-divided families in more than four years later this month.

Koreas agree to first family reunions in four years. Sign of detente?

Previous efforts to bring together divided families have collapsed amid angry recriminations by the North. US-South Korea military exercises may provide a pretext for another pullout.

South and North Korean negotiators agreed Wednesday to stage the first reunions of families divided by the Korean War in four years. But skeptics question whether the deal signifies a new mood of reconciliation or a tactical step by the North's leadership. 

Analysts tend to see the agreement for the reunions, set for late February, as a way for North Korea to mingle a show of goodwill with hard-line denunciations of the US and South Korea. The reunions coincide with the opening of annual US-South Korea military exercises that North Korea has denounced in daily diatribes. The North has previously used joint exercises as a pretext to back out of agreed-upon family reunions, most recently last September.

“The talks are in line with Pyongyang’s decision to show a smiling face to the outside,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior State Department expert on nuclear nonproliferation, and now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. 

Mr. Fitzpatrick questions, however, “whether the ‘charm offensive’ will last long enough for family reunions to actually take place.” More likely, North Korea will pull out once the joint exercises begin and “they will blame the US and South Korea." 

North Korea has already warned that talks cannot go on amid the sounds of “gunfire” – the noise of exploding shells during the war games. In a bid to ease tensions, the US has said that a US aircraft carrier laden with warplanes would not be deployed this time. 

The agreement reached Wednesday would bring together around 100 families at the Mount Kumgang resort area just inside North Korea. South Korean leaders, including President Park Geun-hye, have been calling strongly for resumption of the reunions, while also questioning their neighbor's sincerity. 

Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, called the agreement “the first sign of progress in improving inter-Korean relations that have worsened due to the North's military threats against the South in recent months.” South Korea’s unification ministry released a recording in which a North Korean negotiator described the agreement as “a very important starting point for improving the North-South relations."

Regime purge

South Korea has stepped up criticism of the North during its purge of Jang Song-thaek, the former regent-mentor to Kim Jong-un. Mr. Jang was executed in December purportedly for plotting a coup against the young dictator. Mr. Jang was seen as untouchable because he was married to Mr. Kim's aunt, the younger sister of his father, the long-ruling Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. 

The elder Kim presided over the first reunion of Korean families in 2000, following a June summit with South Korea’s late President Kim Dae-jung. The goal was to bring together family members who had not seen one another since the Korean war.

Since then,  21,700 people from North and South Korean families have met briefly, but there have been no reunions since March 2010, when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean Navy corvette, killing 46 sailors. Members of several hundred thousand families divided by the war are believed still to be alive. 

North Korea has turned the reunions “into a cruel farce,” says David Straub, a former senior US diplomat in Seoul who teaches at Stanford University In California. He argues that Pyongyang only allows rare meetings of "carefully selected people" as a way to wrest concessions from Seoul.

“North Korea has never even allowed its people to exchange letters and telephone calls with family members and friends in South Korea,” Mr. Straub notes. 

Given this backdrop, any hope that family reunions could herald broader cooperation between the two Koreas is tempered by deep skepticism.

“These latest outreach efforts are merely part of the normal North Korean cycle,” says Bruce Bechtol, author of several studies of North Korean military and political tactics and strategy. “We continue to see Kim Jong-un following the same script as his father,” he says, citing the rhetoric about joint US-South Korea exercises.

Mr. Bechtol believes “reunions are a good thing – especially for the families – but if they occur, it will not mean any change, none at all, in North Korea’s rogue state behavior.”

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