North and South Korea put off talks, unable to agree on attendees

The venue for the Koreas' first high-level meeting is seen at Grand Hilton Hotel in Seoul, South Korea, which said its planned talks with North Korea have been scrapped on their eve because of a stalemate over who will lead each delegation. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

North and South Korea called off talks a day before their scheduled start, South Korean officials said Tuesday, after the two sides failed to agree on who should attend.

The planned dialogue had sparked hopes for a thaw in relations on the Korean Peninsula, but the 11th-hour cancellation after North Korea withdrew highlighted the extent to which even small differences keep Seoul and Pyongyang apart.

The two-day meeting was supposed to start Wednesday at Seoul’s Grand Hilton hotel, in what would have been the first government talks between the two Koreas in six years. Tensions here spiked in March and April as the North cut off nearly all contact with the South and lobbed near-daily threats of attack. But in recent weeks, the family-run police state showed apparent interest in reconciliation.

At an evening news conference Tuesday, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry kept open the possibility that talks could take place Thursday and urged the North to participate.

The spokesman, Kim Hyung-suk, said the North was “responsible” for backing out, having rejected Seoul’s proposed delegation. But he also described a convoluted series of proposals and counterproposals, unfolding over the past two days, in which each side managed to offend the other.

Initially, South Korea had hoped for a summit between ministers — Ryoo Kihl-jae leading the South and Kim Yang Gon leading the North. But the North refused, deeming Kim too powerful to be paired with Ryoo. Some analysts in Seoul say they understand the North’s reasoning: Ryoo, the unification minister, is responsible for the South’s policy toward the North, but Kim, head of the United Front Department in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, oversees a wider area of foreign policy.

“Kim’s position suggests he has stronger power than the unification minister,” Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, wrote in an e-mailed opinion briefing on the talks.

After North Korea indicated it would not send Kim to Seoul, the South decided its delegation would not include Ryoo. Tuesday afternoon, the two countries exchanged lists of proposed negotiators — five for each side. The South’s was headed by Ryoo’s lieutenant, Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik. The North then threatened to call off the meeting unless Ryoo was included, the Unification Ministry spokesman said.

“It does not seem reasonable that the North has withdrawn from talks,” the spokesman said.

After withdrawing, the North did not immediately release a statement.

The first sign of conflict over the talks surfaced Sunday, during a session among North and South Korean lower-level officials that was supposed to set the agenda and participants for the midweek talks. The session lasted 17 hours and ended without any agreement.

If the talks are not revived soon, it will deal a blow to the strategy of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who wants to use small economic-cooperation projects to build trust between the neighbors.

The planned talks had been designed to restart some of those projects — most notably the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly operated border facility that North Korea shuttered in April when it pulled out its 53,000 workers. The North indicated it wanted South Korea to resume sending tour groups to the Mount Kumgang resort, where in 2008 a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean guard.

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.



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