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N. Korean media criticizes S. Korea, warns that family reunions may be scrapped

North Korean Son Kwon Geun, center, weeps with his South Korean relatives as he bids farewell after a separated-family reunion at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea in October 2015. (AP)

SEOUL — North Korea’s state-run media released a string of articles Friday that criticized the South Korean government, hinting that planned reunions for families split between the two nations could be canceled.

An editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the official state newspaper of the North Korean ruling party, argued that South Korea has been exaggerating its role in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

South Korea’s role in the talks does “not even amount to that of an assistant,” the editorial said. The same article described comments made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Singapore last week as “presumptuous” and “flippant.”

The South Korean leader had told reporters that the world would judge the United States and North Korea if they failed to live up to the agreements their leaders had made.

Although Moon was not named in the Rodong Sinmun editorial, the article constitutes some of the most direct criticism of the South Korean leader to appear in North Korea’s state media since he met with Kim Jong Un for a historic inter-Korean summit in April.

The historic Kim-Moon meeting as it unfolded

Separately Friday, two North Korean propaganda websites released articles calling on the South Korean government to repatriate a group of North Korean restaurant workers who defected two years ago in disputed circumstances.

“If our female citizens’ repatriation issue is not resolved as quickly as possible, it could become an obstacle not just to the planned reunions of divided families between the two Koreas but also to overall inter-Korean relations,” wrote Uriminzokkiri, one of the websites.

An article in the state-run online outlet Meari also said that unless the issue of the restaurant workers is resolved soon, it could hinder family reunifications.

After the April summit, the two Koreas agreed to hold reunions in mid-August for families split up by the division of the Korean Peninsula after the 1950-1953 Korean War. The articles in Uriminzokkiri and Meari are the first public attempts to link the family reunions with the outcome of the restaurant workers case.

Family reunions on divided Korean Peninsula to resume in latest outreach

A dozen North Korean women and their male manager, all of whom worked at a restaurant in China, were involved in the high-profile defection in 2016. At the time, the conservative South Korean government said it was the first time a large group of North Koreans working overseas at a state-run restaurant had agreed to defect together.

North Korea accused the South Korean government of kidnapping its citizens, and earlier this year, the restaurant manager told the South Korean cable channel JTBC that the defection was in fact a “luring and a kidnapping.”

The manager reiterated his claims during an interview with Yonhap News this week, accusing South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of blackmailing him into defecting. 

South Korea’s new, progressive government has maintained that the defections were voluntary. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for an investigation into the manager’s claims.

Moon and Kim’s summit in April was followed on June 12 by a meeting between Kim and President Trump in Singapore, where the two leaders agreed to work toward denuclearization and other goals.

Trump and Kim joint statement from the Singapore summit

While in Singapore last week, Moon downplayed North Korea’s critical response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang this month, describing it as a “negotiating tactic.”

The South Korean government has generally refrained from openly criticizing the North’s government during talks: On Friday, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon praised Kim as a North Korean leader who finally cared about the “livelihoods of people.”

South Korea’s presidential Blue House declined to comment on the articles in North Korean state media Friday.

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.

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