North Korea announced today that it would not attend talks on economic cooperation with South Korea next week because a shoot-out in the truce village of Panmunjom four days ago had dispelled an atmosphere of trust.
North Korea's official Radio Pyongyang said the South had been told that the talks, aimed at encouraging mutual trade and investment, could be resumed "next year" if the climate improved.
It was the first major stumble in what had been steady progress toward widening trust and dialogue in recent months.
North Korea's chief delegate to the talks, Lee Song Rok, relayed the decision to his counterpart, Kim Ki Hwan, by telephone hotline today. According to Radio Pyongyang, Lee said, "Panmunjom is bloody, peace is being threatened to the utmost and the climate for dialogue has seriously deteriorated."
Saying that delegates' security could not be guaranteed, he saw "no alternative" but to postpone the talks scheduled in Panmunjom Dec. 5. "We hope that the conference will reopen soon by action your side will take to create an atmosphere of dialogue," he was quoted as saying.
That was an apparent reference to the North's contention that U.S. and South Korean guards were to blame for the gun battle, which killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean and wounded one American soldier and at least one North Korean.
North and South Korea began a particularly tense period in their relationship last year after a bomb blast killed 17 South Korean officials making a state visit to Burma. Burma later convicted two North Korean Army officers of the crime.
But in September, tension turned to detente when North Korea offered rice, cement and other commodities to South Korean flood victims and the South accepted.
On Nov. 15, the two sides held their first meeting in Panmunjom on trade and investment and agreed to meet a second time next week. There has been no trade between them since before the Korean War began in 1950.
On Nov. 20, delegates from the two sides' Red Cross societies met in Panmunjom and agreed to restart negotiations suspended in 1973 toward reuniting families separated by the war. The two sides agreed to meet in Seoul within two months.
Today's statement made no mention of whether North Korea would postpone the Red Cross talks, too.
Tonight, a spokesman for the South Korean trade talks delegates expressed regret over the decision and asked the North to "come forward for a second session at the earliest possible date."
Officials and newspapers in Seoul had generally predicted that the gun battle would have no significant effect on the dialogue because the violence appeared to have been touched off accidentally.
It began when a Soviet citizen crossed the demarcation line in Panmunjom. North Korea contends that he crossed inadvertently and was abducted by U.S. and South Korean guards.
At meetings on Saturday and Monday with U.S. military officers, representing the United Nations command that controls the southern sector of Panmunjom, the North demanded that those responsible be punished. The U.N. command, however, says the Soviet crossed deliberately to seek political asylum and North Korean guards firing rifles and pistols chased him 150 yards into the South's zone.