South Korea prepares for family reunions amid North Korean threats of rocket launch, nuke test

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is moving ahead with preparations for reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War despite rival North Korea talking about new rocket launches and nuclear tests.

South Korean officials have hinted they will try to proceed with planned Oct. 20-26 reunions at North Korea's Diamond Mountain resort even if the North launches a satellite before then.

But analysts believe a dramatic provocation from the North could threaten the reunions as it would inevitably stoke military tensions on the divided peninsula.

North Korea's government-run Minju Joson newspaper said Saturday that the U.S. and South Korea were making "frantic efforts" to stop the North from conducting a satellite launch and a nuclear test, and said such reactions were an "unforgivable" provocation against the country's sovereignty. The commentary, carried by the Korean Central News Agency, claimed it was justifiable for North Korea to strengthen its nuclear arsenal because it is facing military threats from its rivals.

"Unlike the issue of economic or food aid, the Seoul government will be able to carry on with the family reunions even in the face of a North Korean provocation without worrying about losing public support," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"However, since the reunions will be held in North Korea, they could be threatened by escalated military tension along the border, which might follow a rocket launch," he said.

Through its state media, North Korea has signaled that it could mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers' Party of Korea on Oct. 10 with a satellite launch, and earlier in the week announced the restart of atomic-fuel plants.

That prompted speculation that the North is preparing for its fourth nuclear test explosion. A nuclear test or a satellite launch would violate U.N. resolutions, the latter because the rocket technology needed can also be used to develop long-range missiles.

South Korean officials have said they have not yet detected any signs indicating preparations for a satellite launch.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official told the National Assembly last week that Seoul would be able detect preparations for a nuclear test a month in advance, and one week for a rocket launch.

Talk of the satellite launches and nuclear tests seems to be part of the North's attempts to push for talks with the U.S. and other nations so that it could wrest concessions to improve its dismal economy, Koh said.

A team of South Korean officials inspected the Diamond Mountain facilities earlier in the week and came back convinced that the conditions were good enough to hold the meetings, said Jeong Joon-Hee, spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry.

"There were some parts that needed fixing and refurbishment and we plan to set up a date with the North as quickly as possible to get those jobs done," Jeong told reporters Friday.

The Koreas agreed to hold the reunions in an accord in August that eased a standoff that had flared after a mine explosion blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers. About 18,800 Koreans have participated in several highly emotional reunions between the rivals since 1985, but there hasn't been a reunion since early last year.

The rivals have a long history of failing to follow through on reconciliation efforts. Planned reunions in 2013 were scrapped at the last minute because North Korea claimed that the South was trying to overthrow Pyongyang's government.

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