North Korea says South Korea must lift sanctions before talks on family reunions

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea on Friday said South Korea should lift five-year old sanctions on Pyongyang if it wants to discuss reunions for families on the divided peninsula, as Seoul pushed again for a high-level dialogue.

Without resolving the sanctions issue "any talks, contacts or exchanges are impossible between the North and the South", the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) said. "If the South Korean authorities are sincere about addressing humanitarian issues, they must remove obstacles they have created," the committee said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

South Korea slapped sanctions on the North in the wake of the 2010 sinking of one of its warships, the Cheonan. The measures effectively froze all trade and investment with North Korea, with the exception of the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

North Korea has always denied the South's charge that one of its submarines sank the Cheonan, and has refused to provide the admission of responsibility and apology that Seoul has demanded for lifting the sanctions.

The CPRK statement linked the sanctions to the South's proposal for resuming high-level talks on arranging a reunion of divided families around the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb 19.

Earlier on Friday, the South's Unification Ministry had called on Pyongyang to respond to the talks offer "without further hesitation". "Time is running out," ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters.

The last round of formal high-level talks between the two Koreas was held in February last year and resulted in the North hosting a rare family reunion - the first for three years.

Millions of Koreans were separated from their families by the war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.

Some 71,000 people - mostly aged over 70 - are still alive and wait-listed for the reunion events, for which only about 100 from each side are allowed to join each time.

The reunion programme began in earnest after a historic North-South summit in 2000, but it has constantly been hampered by volatility in cross-border relations.