S. Korea: North Refuses to Free Worker After Talks Fall Apart

North Korea refused Tuesday to release a seized South Korean worker during talks that were supposed to offer the first contact between the sides in more than a year but ended quickly and only after 11 hours of wrangling over how to conduct them.

The office of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said late Tuesday in a statement that Pyongyang rejected Seoul's demand during the talks at a troubled joint industrial complex in North Korea where the worker has been held for allegedly denouncing the North's political system.

"We made it clear that our government will react strongly unless the North side immediately releases the detainee," the statement said. "All responsibility for the following situation lies with the North."

The statement also said that North Korea will reconsider the preferential treatment it gives to South Korea at the complex, where its companies have invested and make use of cheap North Korean labor.

North Korean state media were silent on the meeting's outcome.

It was a poor result to what had been billed as a major step — the first government-to-government dialogue since the South's conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last year.

The meeting, requested by North Korea last week, came amid heightened tensions between the two countries and follows the North's rocket launch earlier this month that drew condemnation by the United Nations.

In response to the censure, Pyongyang withdrew from negotiations aimed at ending its atomic program and vowed to restart the nuclear program.

Tuesday's meeting — which lasted just 22 minutes — started after bickering between the two sides over how it should be conducted. South Korean officials spent more than 11 hours in the North before the formal meeting got under way. Officials had spent most of the day simply trying to settle procedural issues.

The difficulty in getting the talks started underlines how soured relations are between the two countries. North Korea has mostly refused to deal with South Korea under Lee, though the two countries have conducted military talks and met on the sidelines of six-nation nuclear negotiations.