South Korea rejects North's demand for delay of joint drills with US

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea has rejected a demand by its northern neighbour to postpone this month's military drills with the United States to avoid overlap with planned reunions of families separated during the Korean War, an official said on Thursday.

The demand, made at a rare high-level meeting on Wednesday between the North and South, raised the possibility that the family reunion event might be scuttled and deal a setback to weeks of confidence-building efforts by Seoul.

"North Korea persistently demanded the postponement of the joint exercise for two days where it overlaps the reunions," South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told parliament.

"As far as we're concerned, it's impossible."

Ryoo is the South's top policymaker on the North.

The demand appears to be a step back by the North, which had called for the cancellation of the drills and is the latest example of conflicting signals from Pyongyang, which included an abrupt cancellation of an invitation for a US envoy to visit.

The North says the drills are a rehearsal for war by the United States, despite consistent denials by Seoul and Washington, which say they are routine exercises.

South Korea's defence ministry said the drills would be held as scheduled later this month as troops and equipment have already started mobilising and also on the grounds that legitimate defence activities should not be linked to a humanitarian event.

The two Koreas are scheduled to hold reunions of family members separated since the Korean War at the Mount Kumgang resort just inside the North.

Several lawmakers expressed concern that the North would once again scrap the reunions as it did in September.

An expert on the North said it was too optimistic to expect the North was genuinely seeking reconciliation with the South.

"North Korea in the first place has no willingness to hold reunions and it looks likely to fall apart," said Lee Ji-sue of Myongji University in Seoul.

"Even if it goes ahead, the reunions will end up being an one-off event."

The North has previously threatened to cancel the reunions, citing a sortie last week by a nuclear-capable US B-52 bomber near the Korean peninsula.

The United States has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.

North Korea has cancelled an invitation for US human rights envoy Robert King to visit Pyongyang to discuss the release of imprisoned US missionary Kenneth Bae, which had been expected to come as early as this week.

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