Unification Ministry
South Korean chief delegate Kim Kyou-hyun, third from left, talks with his North Korean counterpart Won Tong Yon, third from right, during a meeting at the border village of Panumjom, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.

Why was North Korea so quick to agree to family reunions?

Kim's grip on power could be a factor in the North's willingness to drop its demand that the US and South Korea call off military exercises in exchange for reunions of families divided by the cold war.

South and North Korea agreed to allow reunions next week of nearly 100 families divided by the Korean War in a breakthrough agreement that appeared to signal Pyongyang's deepened interest in easing tensions on the peninsula. 

North Korea surprised South Korean negotiators Friday by completely dropping its demand that the United States and the South cancel military exercises set to begin during the reunions.

The North, analysts say, may be prioritizing smoother relations with its southern neighbor while it grapples with internal problems after the execution of long-time regent-mentor Jang Song-thaek and the purge of hundreds of his followers.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “is strengthening his power base,” says Kim Tae-woo, a defense expert at Dongguk University here. “That’s why they tried hard to get results from these talks.” 

Coming on the second day of high-level talks, requested by North Korea, the deal will allow 84 North Koreans and 85 South Koreans to begin five days of meetings on Feb. 20 at the base of Mount Kumkang, just above the North-South line near the east coast.

The eagerness of North Korean officials to meet at the truce village of Panmunjom, and willingness to drop their requirement for at least a delay of the war games after 13 hours of talks on Tuesday, became obvious when the South Korean team arrived on Friday. They discovered that the entire North Korean team had remained on the North Korean side of the line for two nights while waiting to sign off on the deal.

“The agreement today came very fast,” said an official at South Korea’s unification ministry. “The atmosphere was very cooperative.”

South Korea’s chief negotiator, Kim Kyou-hyun, characterized the deal as “meaningful” and “a first step toward development of inter-Korean relations based on confidence." He predicted the two Koreas would “continue to build confidence through dialogue in the future."

No more slander?

North Korea did extract one dividend from the talks. The two sides, in a joint statement, “agreed to refrain from slandering each other in order to promote mutual understanding and trust.”

That statement “is tricky,” observes Kim Tae-woo. “Do you think North Korea will stop recriminations?” he asks rhetorically. “The whole South Korean population is exposed to psychological warfare.”

Although the joint statement does not specifically say so, North Korean negotiators complained about critical editorials in the South Korean media. North Korea has also protested against South Koreans’ firing off  large balloons that fly over North Korea, dropping propaganda leaflets along with candy bars and US dollar bills.

Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean national assembly member who previously ran Open Radio North Korea, which broadcasts news and propaganda into the North, believes North Korea is also anxious for the South to stop such broadcasts.

“The first thing the North wants is no radio,” says Mr. Ha, now a member of the South Korean national assembly from the ruling party of the South’s conservative president, Park Geun-hye. 

Whether the South will crack down on such broadcasts, though, is not clear.

'A new phase'

Regardless of such details, the speed with which the North Korean news agency released the joint statement was almost as surprising as the agreement itself. KCNA prefaced the statement with the extraordinary comment, “Both sides confirmed the will to open a new phase of national unity, peace, prosperity and independent reunification by improving the inter-Korean relations….”

The agreement, moreover, carries the specific promise of more such talks in the near future. The two sides, it said, would “continue discussing the issues of mutual concern and make positive efforts to develop the inter-Korean relations” and had “agreed to hold a high-level contact at date convenient to both sides.”

The agreement, however, gave no hint as to the possibility of talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korea in the talks on Tuesday said the nuclear issue could not enter into the discussion. The North has said many times that it will not abandon the program, which it claims to need for defense against the South.

Still, says Ha, while North and South are talking, “North Korea is not going to wage a military attack” similar to those in the Yellow Sea in 2010 in which 50 South Koreans were killed in the sinking of a navy ship and the shelling of an island.

Instead, a unification ministry explained, “We will continue trust-building” – all in keeping with President Park’s policy of “trustpolitik.” 

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