South Korea said Friday it will go ahead with joint military exercises with the United States in coming months as planned, a move that analysts say may prompt Pyongyang to stage provocations.
North Korea has repeatedly called on South Korea to scrap the joint military drills scheduled to run from late February to April. The North suspects the military exercises could be a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it. Seoul and Washington have said the routine drills are defensive in nature.
On late Thursday, the North's powerful National Defense Commission took one step further by proposing halting all slander between the sides as it dangled a prospect of reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Seoul questioned Pyongyang's sincerity, noting it is North Korea that has frequently criticized South Korea, not the other way around.
Kim Eui-do, spokesman for the unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean relations, said South Korea will monitor whether North will back up its offer to stop slandering with its actions.
"Our military drills are annual defensive drills conducted by a sovereign country," Kim said. "The North should take responsible steps for its past provocations instead of taking issue with our legitimate military drills."
In 2010, the North sank a South Korean warship near their western sea border and later shelled a nearby border island, killing a total of 50 South Koreans, mostly soldiers. Still, the North has refused to take responsibility for the deadly attacks.
Defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok also confirmed that the joint drills will be held as scheduled, dismissing Pyongyang's demand as "nonsense."
"As the Republic of Korea is a democratic country, it does not launch pre-emptive attacks," Kim said in a briefing, using South Korea's official name.
The planned drills come amid concerns that the North may stage provocations as it seeks to forge internal unity following last month's execution of its leader Kim Jong-un's once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in the biggest political upheaval in decades.
North Korea has a track record of carrying out provocations at a time of internal instability in an apparent attempt to divert people's attention and forge unity.
South Korea called on the North not to link family reunions to the military drills, calling them an urgent humanitarian issue. Most of those in separated families are in their 70s and 80s, and they want to meet their long-lost relatives before they die.
North Korea has recently spurned Seoul's proposal to hold family reunions, citing, among other things, South Korea's annual joint military exercises with the U.S.
Kim, the unification ministry spokesman, called on the North to "immediately realize family reunions without any conditions."
The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since their landmark summit in 2000, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the Korean War. The conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war.
Also Thursday, the North's National Defense Commission said that the North is committed to denuclearization, saying its nuclear force is a deterrent against what it claims is a U.S. nuclear threat.
Kim, the unification ministry spokesman, said North Korea should immediately take substantial steps toward denuclearization if Pyongyang wants peace on the Korean Peninsula.
"Our position remains unchanged that we are seeking to develop inter-Korean relations by building confidence between the South and North," he said. (Yonhap News)