North Korea's top envoy to Britain dangled the possibility of progress in staging reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War as he renewed Pyongyang's demands that Seoul cancel its annual military drill with the United States.
Hyun Hak-bong said in a video interview posted Thursday that the two Koreas can discuss a date for staging the family reunions, breaking the silence the North has kept since South Korea proposed earlier this week to hold the reunions for the aging Koreans.
"As for the practical and exact date, it could be exchanged and discussed between the two sides ... Now, we are working on that," Hyun said in the interview with Sky News, a 24-hour news channel in Britain. Still, he did not elaborate.
The issue of family reunions has been thrown into doubt as North Korea had been keeping mum on Seoul's offer to hold them at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on North Korea's east coast, on Feb. 17-22.
South Korea also proposed holding Red Cross talks with North Korea on Wednesday at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss details of the reunions. Still, the meeting never took place as the North did not respond.
South Korea made the proposal days after the North offered to hold family reunions at a "convenient time" for Seoul in the latest of its conciliatory overtures toward South Korea.
The overture called for, among other things, the cancellation of Seoul's annual joint military exercises with Washington, which are set to run from late February through April.
"It is high time for South Korea to cancel or to stop the military exercises," Hyun said.
The North claims the military exercises could be a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it. Seoul and Washington have vowed to go ahead with their joint exercises, calling them defensive in nature.
On Friday, South Korea's point man on North Korea pressed Pyongyang to quickly hold family reunions as a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations.
"The North should quickly respond to reunions without any conditions if it is sincerely committed to addressing the issue of separated families," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a speech near the border marking Lunar New Year's Day, a major holiday celebrated by both Koreas.
Last year, the North abruptly canceled family reunions at the last minute.
Family reunions are a highly emotional issue on the divided Korean Peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s and want to see their long-lost relatives before they die.
There are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians of the two countries that remain divided by a heavily fortified border.
The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since the mid-1980s, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the Korean War. (Yonhap)