North Korea in a statement on Saturday abruptly announced the cancelation of family reunions scheduled to be held in four days' time. The North accused the South of engaging in "hostile tactics that hurt our dignity and pride," accusing the Park Geun-hye administration of "abusing" the reunions by representing them as a success of its firm approach toward Pyongyang's demands.
North Korea cited the arrest of United Progressive Party lawmaker Lee Seok-ki on charges of plotting a rebellion as a "barbaric repression" of what it called "patriots" and claimed it cannot hold talks and develop inter-Korean relations under such circumstances.
North Korea's decision is simply inhumane. Most of the 96 people in South Korea seeking to meet their separated siblings in North Korea are between 80 to 95 years of age. One of them, Kim Young-joon (91), died last week. Has North Korea ever thought about the suffering and sadness that canceling the reunions could bring to the separated families.
North Korea gave two reasons for the cancelation. First, it claimed that the Park administration is creating "animosity and malicious sentiment" by taking all the credit for resuming the family reunions. The North, which has repeatedly provoked the South since last year by testing a nuclear weapon and threatening war, did not issue a single apology for heightening tensions, yet it claims that all the progress in relations between the two Koreas was due to its conciliatory efforts.
Second, North Korea claimed South Korea is launching a "witch-hunt" against leftist lawmakers by accusing them of ties to North Korea. Pyongyang had been silent about the issue for over a month as Lee was being investigated by the National Intelligence Service, but suddenly used the probe as an excuse to cancel the reunions.
Did pro-North Korean activists in South Korea complain to the North about the reunions? North Korea has hardly a clean record when it comes to persecuting its own people, accusing them of "subversion" and sending them off to die in concentration camps. Even ministers and other high-ranking officials have been publicly executed on dubious charges.
The North should be reminded that Lee and his cohorts, who hailed North Korea and plotted to get their hands on firearms and produce bombs to aid the North in case of an invasion, will nonetheless face a fair trial according to democratic laws.
In the statement, North Korea did not use the word "cancel" but instead spoke of "postponing" the reunions while it monitors the situation in South Korea. It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang twill ratchet up tensions again or if it is seeking to exact more concessions.
North Korea watchers believe Pyongyang is using the family reunions as a bargaining chip after its attempts to restart the six-party nuclear talks failed and because the South has so far decline to discuss resuming lucrative package tours to Mt. Kumgang. But the North is unpredictable and Seoul must prepare for all eventualities.