Pyongyang yields on family reunions, as US, China discuss Korean denuclearization

North Korea backed off its threat to block reunions of families split by the Korean War, after Secretary of State Kerry refused to budge on planned military exercises with South Korea.

South Korean Unification Ministry/AP
North Korean chief delegate Won Tong Yon (center l.), walks with other delegates after crossing a military demarcation line, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, for a meeting with South Korean delegates at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, on Friday.

Families torn apart by the Korean War might get the chance to reunite for the first time since 2010, after North Korea reversed course on its threat earlier this week to block the visits.

But while the apparent concession by Pyongyang could help thaw North-South relations on the Korean peninsula, efforts to put North Korea on the path to denuclearization remain hampered by disagreements between the US and China on how to move forward.

The New York Times reports that the apparent concession comes amid US Secretary of State John Kerry's fifth trip to Asia to tackle creeping concerns in the region, including North Korea’s nuclear program and the dispute between China and Japan in the South China Sea.

North Korea had threatened to walk away from earlier promises to let elderly relatives see one another, unless South Korea canceled military exercises with the United States. But Mr. Kerry rejected the demands, arguing that they have nothing to do with family reunification. If the visits are allowed to proceed, the Times reports, "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 United Nations sanctions."

But whether Kerry is able to make a difference on the nuclear front is unclear. His trip today to Beijing today is aimed at getting China to step up its role in the conflict. As a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry put it to The Washington Post: the trip is “an effort to translate ‘denuclearization’ from a noun to a verb.”  

The official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said Kerry wants to “enlist greater and greater levels of Chinese cooperation in actually helping to achieve the goal of denuclearization, not just talking about it."

China has remained North Korea’s main ally, but ties between the two were dealt a blow last year after North Korea went ahead with a nuclear test despite China’s pleas that it not. The US has hoped China would take the lead on calming down Pyongyang.

“No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea behavior than China,” Kerry said during his visit in Seoul. “All of the refined fuel that goes in to move every automobile and airplane in North Korea comes from China. All of the fundamental, rudimentary banking structure it has with the world passes through China. Significant trade and assistance goes from China to North Korea.”

China seems to have brushed off Kerry’s pleas, however. Asked about his remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is already doing significant diplomacy. "China as a responsible, big country has been actively promoting and resolving the nuclear issue and has played its due role," Mr. Hua said, according to Reuters. "We have, through different channels, worked on the North Korea nuclear problem through the six-party nuclear talks, and have maintained close communication with the parties."

American diplomacy with China on North Korea is also complicated by China’s territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific and calls that the US stay out of its disputes with its neighbors, particularly Japan. "The United States is not a party in the South China Sea dispute, and should ... be careful in its words and actions, and do more that will benefit true peace and stability in the region rather than the opposite," Hua said.

Those comments came as an editorial in China's official Xinhua news agency criticized US positions in the dispute, reports the Associated Press. 

"The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighboring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China's sovereign rights," Xinhua said.

"To dial down the flaring regional tensions, what Washington is expected to do right at the moment is not to blame China but press Japan to call off its provocative moves."

None of this bodes well for peace in the region, as the Economist points out. "North Korea, despite a little flurry of friendly gestures this week, is an ever-present, nuclear-armed threat to regional security. Indeed, worries about the stability of its regime are mounting," the author writes. "It would be in the interests of America, China, Japan and South Korea alike to agree on a strategy for dealing with the North. But they are too busy disagreeing among themselves."

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