By JEYUP S. KWAAK, SEOUL (WSJ): North Korea withdrew from talks planned with South Korea in Seoul for Wednesday in a dispute over the makeup of the South’s delegation, collapsing the first senior-level dialogue between the nations in years.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the North cited dissatisfaction with the South’s decision to lead its delegation with a deputy minister, even though Pyongyang had proposed its own negotiating team be headed by an official of similar rank.
North Korean state media had no immediate comment on the breakdown of talks.
Lists of delegates were exchanged early Tuesday afternoon, after which the North quickly objected to Seoul’s head delegate, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said. South Korea proposed a deputy minister to lead its negotiating team after North Korea said it wasn’t willing to send an official of a rank similar to the South’s unification minister.
The dispute over the lead officials was raised during marathon preliminary meetings over the weekend. South Korea had called for talks between ministers with decision-making power, while the North insisted on a more general meeting of “senior officials.”
North Korea termed the South’s choice of main negotiator as ridiculous and said Seoul was to blame for the postponement, Mr. Kim said. North Korea said the talks would be postponed indefinitely, while South Korea urged the North to send the delegation as planned. The talks were scheduled to run for two days through Thursday.
In the past, South Korean deputy ministers have met with lower-ranking officials than the chief delegate proposed for this week’s meetings by the North, meaning Pyongyang may have been offended, said Chang Yong-suk, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
The South may have been similarly irked because the North’s proposed head delegate hadn’t been to an inter-Korean meeting before, Mr. Chang said. His assertion about the North Korean official couldn’t immediately be confirmed.
While it wasn’t clear if an agreement could be reached to salvage a meeting, the derailment before the opening of talks is the latest reminder of the level of mistrust between the two countries.
The planned discussions would have been the first senior-level dialogue between the two Koreas in six years, after North Korea surprised observers last week by calling for discussions.
On the agenda was the possible reopening of suspended joint projects, including a joint industrial park at a North Korean border town closed earlier this year by the North during heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The two sides had also agreed at preliminary meetings to discuss reopening a resort operated by a South Korean company inside the North until 2008, when a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist.
Humanitarian issues including reuniting families separated by the Korean War were also expected to be discussed.
The proposed talks had appeared to mark a breakthrough after relations between the neighbors hit a new low earlier this year as the North ratcheted up war rhetoric.
The South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, remains open for dialogue and urged the North to send its delegation for a meeting, ministry spokesman Mr. Kim said.
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