SEOUL: North Korea on Thursday accused South Korea of deliberately sabotaging planned high-level talks with “arrogant obstructions” and warned that prospects for any future dialogue had been severely damaged.
The two Koreas had initially agreed to hold their first high-level talks in six years in Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday this week, but they were called off at the last minute following a dispute over protocol.
The talks initiative had been seen as a step forward after months of soaring military tensions, but its collapse has instead resulted in a sizeable backwards stride.
Even the one positive development—the restoration of an inter-government hotline—seemed in doubt, with the North refusing to answer calls from the South since Wednesday morning.
“The South side had no intent to hold dialogue from the beginning,” said a spokesman for the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK)—the state body that handles inter-Korean issues.
“It only sought to create an obstacle to the talks, delay and then torpedo them,” he said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, accusing the South of “arrogant obstructions and deliberate disturbance.”
“This impolite and immoral provocative behaviour made us think once again whether it will be possible to properly discuss matters or improve relations even if official talks are opened in the future,” the spokesman said.
The agreement to meet in Seoul this week had looked vulnerable from the outset—requiring 17 hours of negotiation on Sunday that ended with no real consensus on the agenda and other issues.
The final nail in the coffin was a dispute over who would represent each side, with the North arguing that the South’s nomination of a vice minister as its chief delegate was an insult.
When Seoul refused to upgrade to a cabinet minister, the North cancelled the despatch of its delegation.
The South’s Unification Ministry, which insisted its vice minister was commensurate in rank to the North’s chief delegate, said the CPRK spokesman’s take on the talks’ collapse was “distorted.”
Past talks may have seen the South field a chief delegate of higher rank than the North, but the time had come for “such practices to be normalized” in line with international diplomatic norms, the statement said.
“The government will keep the door for dialogue open and hopes the North will come to the table with sincerity and responsibility,” it added.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae, suggested the whole protocol rift was an inevitable “growing pain” as the new administration of President Park Geun-Hye seeks to define a new relationship with Pyongyang.
Park, who took office in February, has pushed a “trust-building” policy with the North, which offers engagement but no concessions without reciprocity.
The talks in Seoul were to have focused on re-opening two suspended commercial projects—the Kaesong joint industrial zone and South Korea tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort.
Both were important hard currency earners for North Korea, which has been squeezed by successive UN sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea effectively closed Kaesong by withdrawing its 53,000 workers from the complex in early April as military tensions peaked.
Representatives of the 123 South Korean firms based in Kaesong voiced their bitter disappointment at the cancellation of the talks, and complained that their businesses were being held hostage to the vagaries of North-South politics.