By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Sept. 21 (Yonhap) -- Dealing a blow to warming cross-border relations, North Korea on Saturday unilaterally postponed the planned reunions of separated family members, citing what it called Seoul's confrontational policy.
The abrupt North Korean move comes only four days before the two Koreas were to hold a new round of family reunions at the North's mountain resort of Kumgang from Sept. 25-30. Both sides have exchanged the final lists of about 200 candidates to be reunited.
South Korea denounced the North's decision as "inhumane," warning that the North's move amounts to driving inter-Korean relations back into a "state of confrontation." It urged Pyongyang to hold the reunions as agreed.
"It is very regrettable that the North unilaterally postponed the reunions, with just four days left," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eyi-do said. "The North's postponement shattered the thrill and hopes of nearly 200 families overnight and deserves denunciation as an inhumane act."
The planned family reunions, the first of their kind in more than three years, have been considered one of a series of signs of a thaw in relations between the two sides, along with the reopening of a jointly run industrial complex in the North that had been suspended amid heightened security tensions since April.
On Saturday, however, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement that it is putting off the family reunions until "a normal atmosphere is created" for the two sides to hold dialogue and negotiations.
The North also postponed the planned negotiations with the South, slated for Oct. 2, on how to reopen the mountain resort, another joint project that has been suspended since the 2008 shooting of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean guard at the resort.
North Korea accused the South of abusing inter-Korean dialogues and negotiations as a means to seek confrontation with the communist country, vowing to take "strong and decisive counteractions" against what it calls the South's "ever-escalating war provocations to it."
"Dialogue can never go together with war," the North's statement read.
The North also said it won't just sit by and watch the South suppress "pro-reunification patriots," apparently referring to a South Korean leftist lawmaker and his followers recently arrested on treason charges against their government.
Rep. Lee Seok-ki and colleagues of his Unified Progressive Party were charged with organizing an underground entity, known as Revolutionary Organization, and plotting to overthrow the South's government in a scheme suspected of links to North Korea.
The North said the oppression of the lawmaker showed that the South is bent on confrontation with Pyongyang. It also accused the South of intensifying a "witch-hunt" against all those who are calling for inter-Korean reconciliation and unification.
"The South Korean conservative regime is wholly to blame for the prevailing situation as it abuses dialogue for pursuing confrontation," the North said. "The DPRK (North Korea) will closely watch the future developments in South Korea."
Saturday's announcement underscored the unpredictability of the regime in Pyongyang and the difficulty in dealing with it. The North has a track record of backtracking from or canceling agreements at the last minute.
The South rebutted the North's comment on the lawmaker.
"We cannot help but worry if Pyongyang's hard-line stance is an indication of another armed provocation, which will only intensify our retribution and international sanctions," the South's unification ministry spokesman said.
Officials at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae expressed disappointment.
"The separated families have been counting down the days until the reunions. North Korea shouldn't act like this on a humanitarian issue," a presidential official said on condition of anonymity.
Family members expressed anger.
"My mother is very disappointed," Ko Jung-sam, 66, said of his 95-year-old mother Kim Sung-yoon, the oldest person selected to take part in the reunions where she was scheduled to meet her siblings in North Korea.
"We've been waiting after buying a lot of presents (for their North Korean relatives). I can't describe how disappointed we are," Ko said. "Relatives should be able to see each other whenever they want to. Where on earth are such bad people?"
The ruling and opposition parties also criticized the North.
"The act of breaching an agreement ... as if turning the palm upside down demonstrates that North Korea still does not understand the principles of diplomacy," Rep. Yoo Il-ho, spokesman of the ruling Saenuri Party, said.
Rep. Bae Jae-jeung of the main opposition Democratic Party said the North should understand that such an about-face in its position never contributes to improvement in inter-Korean relations. She also urged the South's government to make greater efforts to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, a group of 75 South Korean officials, including Red Cross workers, who were preparing for the reunions in the North, will return home later Sunday following the North's announcement, unification ministry officials said.
Millions of Koreans were separated from their families following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war. Their border is tightly sealed, and there are no direct means of contact between ordinary civilians.
The divided Koreas have held 18 temporary reunions since a landmark summit between their leaders in 2000, bringing together more than 20,000 family members who had not seen each other since the war.
The last reunions were held in 2010.
<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>