SEOUL, South Korea – The Koreas’ first high-level talks in years were scrapped a day before they were to begin today because the sides didn’t agree on the delegation leaders, South Korea said. The cancellation deflated tentative hopes that the rivals would improve ties following years of rising hostility.
North Korea said it wasn’t sending its officials to Seoul for the two-day meeting because the South had changed the head of its delegation, Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, told reporters in a briefing Tuesday. The ministry is in charge of North Korea matters.
The hope was that talks on reviving two high-profile economic cooperation projects would start to mend a relationship marred earlier this year by North Korean threats of nuclear war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes. But the collapse on what’s essentially a protocol matter is testament to the difficulty the countries have in finding common ground.
South Korea had originally wanted a minister-level meeting between the top officials responsible for inter-Korean affairs, but Pyongyang wouldn’t commit to that. The last minister-level meeting between the Koreas occurred in 2007.
When Seoul told Pyongyang on Tuesday that it was sending a lower-level official than it had initially proposed in preparatory talks, North Korea said it would consider that a “provocation,” Kim said.
The cancellation arises partly from misunderstandings that the sides have about who equals whom in power between their different political systems, Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said.
“The two sides are offended by each other now. The relations may again undergo a cooling-off period before negotiations for further talks resume,” he said.
North Korea did not issue its own statement about the canceled talks.
The talks were set up in a painstaking 17-hour negotiating session Sunday.