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May 27, 2017

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N. Korea threatens to cancel reunions with Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea--North Korea threatened Thursday to cancel reunions of Korean War-divided families because of upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills and accused the United States 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 — in this case a ratcheting down of massive military drills by Seoul and Washington that are seen as a huge drain on the impoverished North's military.

The rival Koreas decided Wednesday to resume the family reunions, which haven't been held since 2010, on Feb. 20-25. Before the agreement, many in Seoul were skeptical 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 U.S. craft in the region, while South Korea and the U.S. say the exercises are purely defensive.

On Thursday, the North's powerful National Defense 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," an unidentified spokesman for the commission's policy department said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

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

The U.S. 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 Defense 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 mobilizing troops and conducting additional exercises.

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