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 today 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 responsible for inter-Korean affairs, but Pyongyang wouldn’t commit to that. The last minister-level meeting between the Koreas occurred in 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.