Koreas cancel talks at last minute

Updated: 2013-06-13 09:11

(www.asianewsnet.net/The Korea Herald)

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Two sides differ over level of chief delegates, blame each other for scuttled meeting

The two Koreas on Tuesday cancelled their planned meeting due to irreconcilable differences over the level of their delegations.

The cancellation, just one day before the opening of what would be the first high-level government talks since 2007, is expected to deal a blow on the resurgent mood for reconcilliation.

The two-day meeting was to be held in Seoul to discuss the resumptions of the joint industrial park in Gaeseong, tours to Mount Geumgang and reunions of separated families, and other pending issues.

“North Korea announced that its delegation will not be sent, making an issue of the level of our chief negotiator,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters.

He added that the lists of each side’s five-member delegation were exchanged at 1pm.

“Immediately after the lists were exchanged, the North raised an issue about the head of our delegation, saying that the talks cannot be held unless a minister-level official leads our side.”

The two sides exchanged barbs, blaming each other for the cancellation.

“The government deeply regrets North’s attitude. It makes no sense for the North to reject the inter-Korean governmental talks due to the level of our delegation,” Kim said.

He cited the North as saying the South’s change of delegation is a provocation.

Seoul had chosen Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik to head the delegation after North Korea rejected its suggestion of holding the talks between minister-level officials.

South Korea’s first choice to lead the delegation was Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, but the change was made after North Korea implied during the working-level talks that were concluded on Monday that Kim Yang-gon, head of the North’s United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, would not be heading its delegation.

The North’s delegation was to be led by Kang Ji-yong, an official at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, whom Pyongyang claimed is an “upper-level” official. According to Seoul, however, Kang’s post within the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland is significantly lower than that of a minister.

The two-day meeting came as the South seeks to kick-start its trust-building drive while the North is striving to mitigate international pressure over its nuclear programme,

The Park Geun-hye government had planned to approach lighter issues including humanitarian ones before moving onto tougher issues such as security as part of its step-by-step trust-building process.

But Pyongyang was expected to seek to deal with a comprehensive range of issues including jointly hosting the events to mark the June 15 inter-Korean declaration signed in 2000 and the July 4 joint statement signed in 1972, and exchanging civilians.

The focus of the talks was expected to be on reviving bilateral economic cooperation that virtually ended after the suspension of the Gaeseong industrial complex in April. The so-called May 24 measures, put in place after the North’s torpedoing of the corvette Cheonan in March 2010, had also seriously diminished bilateral cooperation.

For the cash-strapped North, reactivating the factory park is critical as it seeks to shore up the moribund economy and address chronic food shortages which could add to public anger over the fledgling Kim Jong-un regime.

The Gaeseong complex was a vital source of hard foreign currency for the regime, which has been put under deeper international isolation following its nuclear test in February and long-range rocket launch in December.

For its part, Seoul was expected to demand that Pyongyang sign a legally binding commitment for it to be held responsible should it unilaterally suspend the operation of the industrial park where 123 South Korean firms had run its labour-intensive factories.

The resumption of the tours to the mountain resort off the North’s east coast is a more complicated issue as Seoul has sought to secure Pyongyang’s guarantee to ensure the safety of tourists.

The tour programme was halted after a North Korean solider shot dead a South Korean tourist who strayed into an off-limits zone around the resort in July 2008.

Over the issue of jointly celebrating the landmark joint inter-Korean declarations, the two sides also remained at odds in the run up to the talks that failed to be held.

Pyongyang appears to prioritise those events as it believes the joint celebrations would be to uphold the late former leaders’ wishes. Some critics here argue the events could be utilised to fuel conflicts in an ideologically divided South Korea.

Attention is also being drawn to whether Seoul would lift the May 24 measures under which it imposed bans on South Koreans travelling to the North, inter-Korean trade, new investments in the North and North Korean ships operating in the South.

Experts said when there was no progress in the North’s denuclearisation efforts, it would be burdensome for Seoul to lift these sanctions. Some argue that lifting the measures would run counter to and weaken international sanctions to punish the North for its nuclear development.