PYONGYANG, North Korea, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- A South Korean team traveled to North Korea Friday to work on family reunions but questions remained whether the North would let them take place as agreed.
The two sides had agreed Wednesday on a six-day event starting Feb. 20 reuniting Korean families, some separated since the 1950-53 Korean War. However, the very next day the Communist country threatened to back out of the deal if South Korea goes ahead with military drills with the United States this month.
The agreement called for the reunions to be held at the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang on North Korea's east coast. The reunions, seen critical for improving the strained inter-Korea relations, are an emotional issue as most of the separated family members are quite elderly and may not have long to live. The families last met one another in October 2010.
North Korea has a history of abruptly calling off such get-togethers.
While it is not known exactly how many families remain separated, the current agreement said there would 85 families from the South and 95 from the North for the reunions, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.
While in North Korea, the South Korean team of 66 Red Cross officials and employees of Hyundai Asan Corp., will check the various facilities for the reunions, Yonhap said.
"Earlier today, North Korea agreed to the South Korean team's trip to the North to check facilities," said a statement from South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs. Hyundai Asan had operated the Mount Kumgang tour program before it was halted in 2008.
Responding to the latest threat from the North, South Korea has said the military drills would not be scrapped, calling them routine and defensive in nature.
The threat came from the North's National Defense Commission, headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It demanded the drills be stopped and called for an end to the slandering their leader, referring to South Korean news reports on Kim's failure to remove his shoes when he visited a Pyongyang nursery.
"First, the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea] will be compelled to consider the implementation of the [reunion] agreement reached as long as the dignity of its supreme leadership is malignantly hurt and the acts of groundlessly slandering and defaming its social system persist," a spokesman for the commission said, which was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The spokesman said the North "will not remain a passive on-looker to their farce staged allegedly to build confidence when formations of U.S. nuclear strategic bombers are flying into the sky ... ."
Blaming the United States for "throwing all sorts of obstacles" against North Korea's efforts to improve inter-Korean relations, the spokesman said the "war exercises and racket for confrontation are incompatible with dialogue and reconciliation."
The spokesman also was quoted as saying South Korea allowed "formations of U.S. B-52 nuclear-capable bombers based on Guam fly into the sky above Jik islet in the West Sea of Korea for a whole day for staging drills for a nuclear strike at the DPRK."
South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae has urged the North to honor its latest agreement on family reunions.
Last year, the two sides agreed to hold similar family reunions but the North called them off at the last minute.
Tensions between the feuding neighbors began ratcheting up a year ago when the North provoked ire with long-range missile firings and a nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions. The six-nation talks on North Korea's denuclearization have been stalled for more than four years.