North Korea on Tuesday abruptly cancelled cross-border government talks which were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. The North affected to be terribly offended when South Korea proposed as delegation leader a vice minister who roughly matched the rank of the North Korean chief delegate.
On the eve of the talks, North Korea informed South Korea that it had appointed Kang Ji-yong, a director at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which is in charge of cross-border affairs. The committee's top spot remains vacant, but there are several vice chairmen, and a director is even lower down the hacking order. In fact, the equivalent rank within the South Korean government would be an assistant vice minister or a department head.
But Pyongyang still flew into a rage when it found that this nondescript apparatchik would now not be facing the unification minister.
It is common courtesy and global protocol to match the ranks of participants in government talks.
The unification minister is in charge of government policies involving North Korea. His proper counterpart in North Korea is Kim Yang-gon, who heads the Workers Party's United Front Department, which deals with inter-Korean matters. It was Kim who was responsible for the closure of the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex after touring the zone last April. Calling on Kim to attend talks aimed at discussing the re-opening of the complex is not only proper in terms of protocol, it is common sense. That is why Seoul made the request.
But North Korea has been spoiled. In previous talks that were billed as "ministerial," the South Korean delegation was always helmed by a minister, as the name suggests, whereas North Korea repeatedly got away with sending some underling, evidently to demonstrate just how little store it set by these meetings. Now its bluff has been called, it sulks, suggesting that it was never sincere about the negotiations in the first place.
It becomes clearer by the minute that North Korea only made the offer of talks last week because the leaders of the U.S. and China were about to meet, and it wanted to look winsome in their eyes.
The presidential office on Tuesday criticized North Korea for trying to blackmail the South into agreeing to its terms, and called on the North to change its behavior if it really wants to engage in constructive dialogue. Seoul did the right thing by refusing to blindly accept all the North's conditions for the sake of talks. It was a necessary decision on the road to putting inter-Korean relations on a more sensible footing. South Korea should not shut its doors on North Korea, but it needs to set firm conditions for constructive dialogue.