US-South Korea begin two-week long joint war drills
A file photo of US-South Korea joint drill earlier this year - Reuters

In what appears to be the first sign of progress in improving inter-Korean relations that had rapidly worsened after North's continued military threats against the South, the two countries on Wednesday agreed to reunite families estranged after the Korean War.

The move, which could help ease some tension in the Korean Peninsula, was announced by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, after delegations met at a "Red Cross talks".

The reunion of the families separated by the 1950-53 war will take place at Mount Kumgang, a famous resort on North Korea's east coast, from 20 February to 25, the news agency reported, citing a copy of an agreement reached at the talks.

The planned reunions will coincide with South Korea's annual joint military exercises with Washington, which are set to take place from late February through April, an indication that North will likely use the event as a bargaining chip for Seoul to withdraw the drill.

North has lately pressed South to scrap the drills and has condemned the event as a rehearsal for a nuclear war against them. Seoul and Washington have pledged to go ahead with the exercises, insisting they are defensive in nature.

North Korea, in January, had cited South Korea's annual joint military exercises with the United States as a major reason why it would not cooperate on the family reunion bid. The reclusive communist nation had said that the reunions could not be held "amid gunfire," referring to the drills.

But the improved negotiations hint that a compromise would possibly be forced on to South, if the union were to finally be a reality. What if North suddenly backtracks and claims it would not go ahead with the union, unless the military exercises are abandoned? The country is known to be fickle and unpredictable.

North has, in the past, shown hostility to the joint military exercise, despite Seoul's insistence that they are defensive in nature and not aimed at any war practices.

Last year, North issued a series of threats aimed at the joint military exercises, staged shortly after the controversial 12 February nuclear test. North Korea, at one point, even went to the extent of warning the two countries that it would reduce Seoul and Washington to a "sea of fire" with a nuclear attack.

Now, the sudden shift in North Korea's position is more than likely to make the US and its ally react cautiously.