June 12, 2013 09:56
North Korea on Tuesday called off high-level government talks with South Korea amid wrangling about the rank of the chief delegates from the two sides. The talks had been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, raising hopes of a thaw in long-frozen ties between the two Koreas.
"North Korea informed us it would not be sending delegates," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters Tuesday evening. "After exchanging lists of the five negotiators each planned to send, the North said the meeting could not be held if no [South Korean] minister-level official attended."
Seoul had named Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik as chief negotiator, while the North proposed to send Kang Ji-yong, a director at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which is in charge of cross-border affairs.
The government initially wanted the unification minister to head the South Korean group, provided North Korea sent someone of roughly similar rank. But Pyongyang had apparently been planning a calculated insult by sending someone of lower rank, and this plan was thwarted by Seoul's decision to name the vice minister instead.
Kim said North Korea promptly took offence, saying Seoul's choice of lead representative went back on agreements between mid-level officials from both sides. In talks over the weekend, the mid-level officials failed to reach any substantive agreement and the North stubbornly declined to name its own chief representative.
The meeting had originally been billed as "ministerial talks" predicated on the South being represented by the unification minister, but the North Koreans insisted they should be called "governmental" instead.
South Korea believes that this change in terminology made the rank of the lead delegate a less pressing matter and it was only proper to appoint a vice minister instead.
North and South Korea held 21 rounds of ministerial talks between July 2000 and May 2007. The South Korean side was indeed always helmed by a minister, as the moniker suggests, but North Korea repeatedly sent underlings, apparently as a snub to signal how little store it set by these meetings.
The Park Geun-hye administration feels that any more such imbalances would do nothing for mutual respect and trust, and blamed North Korea's failure to change its unpredictable attitude for the cancellation. It was North Korea that initially proposed the talks five days ago.
Seoul voiced "strong regret" at the cancellation but said the "door remains open" for talks. But North Korea's petty maneuvering makes it unlikely that talks will happen any time soon.
Experts believe other reasons contributed to the North Korean decision, since Seoul had sent strong signals that Pyongyang could expect no immediate concessions or aid simply for showing up. The hasty offer of cross-border talks also failed to impress the U.S. and China, whose leaders met over the weekend.
"It looks like North Korea felt there would be little to gain from talks after the leaders of the U.S. and China agreed that it cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons," said Yoo Ho-yeol at Korea University.
- Copyright © Chosunilbo & Chosun.com