North Korea rejects South's request for family reunion talks

South Koreans aboard a bus wave goodbye to their North Korean relatives as they depart a family reunion event at the North Korean resort area of Mount Kumgang on Feb 22, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 
South Koreans aboard a bus wave goodbye to their North Korean relatives as they depart a family reunion event at the North Korean resort area of Mount Kumgang on Feb 22, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea on Thursday rejected Seoul's request for talks on reunions for families separated by the Korean War, further souring the mood after a recent upswing in cross-border ties.

The North's negative response came as military tensions simmer, with South Korea conducting annual joint exercises with the United States and Pyongyang carrying out a series of missile and rocket tests.

North Korea said "the proper atmosphere has not been created to discuss family reunions", the South's Unification Ministry said in a statement.

Seoul had sent its request on Wednesday, proposing a meeting on March 12 at the border truce village of Panmunjom.

"We find it regrettable that the North did not accept our proposal," the ministry said, adding that the issue of reuniting families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War should be a "top priority" for Pyongyang as well as Seoul.

The two Koreas recently wrapped up the first such family reunion for more than three years - held at a mountain resort in North Korea from Feb 20 to 25.

The event was seen as a significant step and had fuelled hopes of greater inter-Korean cooperation to come.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun Hye called for reunions to be held on a regular basis and for separated families to be allowed more ways to communicate - including by mail and video conferencing.

Because the Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two countries remain technically at war, and there is almost no direct contact permitted between their civilian populations.

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 waitlisted 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.

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