SEOUL, South Korea – The Koreas' first high-level talks in years have been scrapped because of a stalemate over who will lead each delegation, South Korea said Tuesday, a day before they were to begin. The cancellation is a blow to tentative hopes that the rivals were about to improve ties following years of rising hostility.
North Korea said it wasn't sending its officials to Seoul for the two-day meeting that was to begin Wednesday 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. The ministry is in charge of North Korea matters.
There had been hope that the talks on reviving two high-profile economic cooperation projects would allow the countries to move past a relationship marred by recent North Korean threats of nuclear war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes. But the collapse over 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 for each country's inter-Korean affairs agency, but Pyongyang wouldn't commit to that. The last minister-level meeting between the Koreas occurred in December 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 of talks arises partly from misunderstandings that the sides have about who is equivalent to whom in power between their largely 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 immediately issue its own statement about the canceled talks.
The talks were set up in a painstaking 17-hour negotiating session Sunday, but the rivals had set aside the question of who would lead each delegation. Kim said that on Tuesday, North Korea offered to send a senior official of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea as chief delegate, and Seoul said it would send its vice unification minister as chief delegate.
South Korea had previously proposed sending its unification minister. After it announced the vice minister would go instead, North Korea said it wouldn't send anyone and that "all responsibility is entirely on South Korea," Kim said. He added that Seoul is still open to talks if North Korea reconsiders.
The main goal of the planned talks had been to see if the Koreas could restore economic projects that were born in the "sunshine era," a 10-year period ending in 2008 when South Korea was ruled by liberal presidents who shipped large quantities of aid to Pyongyang as they sought to improve ties. The last of those projects, a North Korean factory complex run with North Korean workers and South Korean managers and capital, shut down this spring.
North Korea also wanted Seoul to restart an era of rapprochement by commemorating past joint statements on reunification and joint economic cooperation efforts. But Seoul balked at this; it has demanded apologies for past bloodshed before allowing such exchanges.
North Korea's interest in talks followed its longstanding cycle of alternating between provocative behavior and attempts to seek dialogue in what analysts say are efforts to win outside concessions.
After U.N. sanctions were strengthened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February, the country, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, threatened nuclear war and missile strikes against Seoul and Washington. North Korea has also conducted recent nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches.
Some observers believe Pyongyang was trying to ease ties with Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing as a way to win coveted talks with Washington, which it believes could grant it aid and security guarantees.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has made trust-building with Pyongyang a hallmark of her nascent rule, even as she vows strong counterstrikes to any North Korean attacks.
There was skepticism in Seoul about the talks even before they collapsed.
"We cannot be overly hopeful about inter-Korean relations, which reached a new low not long ago," the conservative Korea JoongAng Daily said in an editorial Tuesday. "We have experienced numerous setbacks during past talks with Pyongyang."