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N Korea threat to cancel reunions

North Korea has threatened to cancel reunions of Korean War-divided families because of US-South Korean military exercises and accused Washington of raising tensions by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers near the Korean Peninsula.

The apparent about-face a day after the rival Koreas agreed on dates for the emotional meetings fits a pattern analysts describe of North Korea agreeing to things South Korea covets and then pulling back until it gets what it wants.

The North wants a ratcheting down of the massive military exercises that are seen as a huge drain on its impoverished military.

The rival Koreas decided on Wednesday to resume the family reunions, which haven't been held since 2010, on February 20-25.

Before the agreement, many in Seoul were sceptical that North Korea would allow the reunions anytime soon because of its anger over the annual military drills scheduled later this month. North Korea calls the drills preparation for war and is extremely sensitive about any nuclear-capable US craft in the region, while South Korea and the US say the exercises are purely defensive.

Today, the North's powerful National Defence Commission warned that the reunions may not happen if South Korea goes ahead with the drills and continues slandering leader Kim Jong Un.

"It would be a nonsense to hold reunions of families and relatives separated due to the past war while extremely dangerous nuclear war drills take place," a spokesman for the commission's policy department said in a statement.

It said US B-52 bombers conducted nuclear strike drills targeting the North on Wednesday while the two Koreas were discussing the family reunions.

The US Pacific Command wouldn't confirm the North's claim but said it has maintained a strategic bomber presence in the region for more than a decade. Seoul's Defence Ministry also wouldn't confirm local media reports that cited unidentified military officials as saying there had been a training flight by a single B-52.

Despite the North's threat, South Korea said the drills will go ahead as scheduled.

Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, said the North is apparently stepping up pressure to try to get Seoul to conduct the drills in a low-key manner. Analysts believe the drills are an economic drain on North Korea because they often force it to respond by mobilising troops and conducting additional exercises.

The Korean Peninsula officially remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.

Ordinary citizens in the two Koreas are not allowed to exchange phone calls, letters and emails. About 22,000 Koreans have had brief family reunions - 18,000 in person and the others by video - during periods of detente, but no one has had a second chance to meet their relatives.

AP

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