Seoul says high-level meeting possible when North takes responsible steps
The North Korean military said Thursday that it no longer felt any need to engage in dialogue with its South Korean counterpart, blaming Seoul for Wednesday’s breakup of the inter-Korean working-level military talks.
Its statement, in which it called the South the “group of traitors” ― a hostile expression it has refrained from using since early this year ― signaled that the deadlock in the bilateral dialogue would continue for the time being.
“South Korean military authorities do not wish for improvement of inter-Korean relations, and are entirely rejecting the dialogue itself,” the North’s military said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“Under such circumstances, our military and people no longer feel any need to deal with the South.”
Colonel Ri Son-Kwon (front R) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Colonel Moon Sang-gyun (L) of the Republic of Korea's (ROK) enter the venue of the inter-Korean military talks at the truce village of Panmunjom, Feb. 8, 2011. The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People 's Republic of Korea (DPRK) held working-level military talks at the truce village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. (Xinhua/South Korean Defense Ministry)
It also said that on the surface, the South shows an interest in inter-Korean dialogue, but its true intention is blocking the mood for dialogue and seeking to quiet down the calls to reverse its “confrontational” policy toward the North.
On Wednesday, the preliminary talks aimed at setting up a high-level meeting broke down without any agreements as the two sides failed to narrow their differences over the agenda and other issues for the opening of the talks.
Seoul’s Defense Ministry said that the high-level meeting can be held when the North showed a significant shift in its attitude, stressing that the “door for dialogue” remained open.
“Our stance is that the door for a high-level military meeting is still open, but such dialogue will be possible only if North Korea takes responsible measures for the two attacks last year,” Col. Moon Sang-gyun, Seoul’s chief delegate for the preliminary talks, told reporters.
The major bone of contention was the agenda for the future high-level meeting.
The South suggested that the two sides discuss the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November, and that other issues the North raised be discussed afterward.
However, the North insisted that the agenda should also include measures to defuse tensions on the peninsula in addition to the two deadly attacks that together killed 50 South Koreans including two civilians.
The North apparently sought to include other issues on the agenda list in a bid to sidestep or water down its responsibilities for the two incidents, Seoul officials said.
“We said that if North Korea takes steps (to take responsibility) for the two attacks, which can be acceptable by our people, we can discuss other issues that the North has raised,” Col. Moon said.
“We repeatedly said that there are scars on the hearts of our citizens, caused by the two huge incidents, and that we can’t just let them slip by. The North, however, insisted that all issues including the two incidents be dealt with at the talks.”
Seoul has demanded that Pyongyang should take “responsible measures” regarding the incidents including making apologies. However, the North has so far been unresponsive.
Before storming out of the meeting room at the border village of Panmunjeom on Wednesday, the North said, “We have absolutely nothing to do with the Cheonan incident. It is a tremendous plot of the South ― under the direction of the U.S. ― to justify its confrontational policy toward the North.”
Another sticking point was the level of representatives for the high-level talks. The South suggested that the meeting be attended by minister-level officials while the North insisted that it be represented by vice minister-level officials.
“We said that Seoul’s vice minister is not an active-duty military officer, stressing that the military systems are different for the two sides. How can a non-military figure represent the military talks?” Col. Moon said.
Local media assumed that the North is reluctant to send Kim Yong-chun, minister of the North’s People’s Armed Forces, for the high-level talks due to his old age, health and other reasons.
Experts said that holding another military meeting would be difficult for some time, pointing out that the deadlocked inter-Korean dialogue could lead to Pyongyang seeking to hold bilateral talks with Washington and the six-party denuclearization talks.
“The possibility of additional talks may be low for the time being. However, as the U.S. and China want the two Koreas to talk, talks will resume in the future,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“Military tensions between the two Koreas could also be ratcheted up as the South and the U.S. will stage a joint exercise in March.”
Cho Myung-chul, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, said that the collapse of the military talks would affect other future talks with the North.
“As the meeting was the first inter-Korean one in months, it would affect other meetings such as the Red Cross talks and talks between the two governments,” Cho said.
“The collapse could lead to a delay in the resumption of other talks. Both sides could become stricter in setting the agenda or other conditions for their talks. Although the prospect of (additional) military talks is not bright, the North may seek to discuss issues through other forms of dialogue.”
Jhe Seong-ho, North Korea expert at Chung-Ang University, predicted that while continuing its peace offensive, the North will step up its criticism of the South for not making due efforts to improve bilateral ties and incite ideological division in the South.
“At a time when the North is trying to build momentum for the resumption of six-party talks, it would criticize the South for being too obstinate in its stance,” Jhe said.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)