Uncertainties over the prospects of inter-Korean ties rose Saturday as the rare cross-border talks broke down due to differences over a series of pending issues including the stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan and the issue of families separated by the border.
The vice minister-level talks that started amicably Friday turned into a grueling tug-of-war as Pyongyang officials insisted on resuming the lucrative tours to the mountain and linking the issue to the issue of separated families, Seoul officials said.
Seoul’s Vice Unification Minister Hwang Boo-gi speaks during a press conference on Saturday. (Yonhap)
The South Korean side insisted the “humanitarian issue” of divided families should be separate from the issue of the resumption of the tour program, which was suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot to death in 2008 for purportedly straying into off-limit areas.
The talks at the joint industrial complex in the North’s border city of Gaeseong were halted without setting a date for the next session. The breakdown dampened hopes for improvement in bilateral ties that remain chilled due to the North’s provocations and pursuit of nuclear arms, among other issues.
“The North Korean side did not budge an inch from its stance that without the resolution of the issue of the tour program, they would not discuss any other issues,” Seoul’s Vice Unification Minister Hwang Boo-gi told reporters after the two-day talks.
Hwang led the South Korean delegation during the talks, while the North Korean side was headed by Jon Jong-su, a vice director of the North’s Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland handling inter-Korean affairs.
The talks were held after the two sides agreed to hold government talks to enhance cross-border relations under a broader Aug. 25 deal that brought the two sides away from the brink of an armed clash following Pyongyang’s land mine provocation on Aug. 4 and artillery fire on Aug. 20.
Hwang said that during the talks his delegation prioritized finding a “fundamental” resolution to the issue of separated families. His delegation demanded the two sides allow separated families to find out about whether their loved ones are still alive and to enable the cross-border exchange of letters among them.
The South Korean side also demanded the two sides establish “three paths” for cooperation in the areas of the environment, people’s livelihoods and culture, and build a peace park in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
However, the North focused mostly on the resumption of the tours to Mount Geumgangsan, arguing the agreement over the issue should be prioritized before seeking resolutions to other issues, Hwang explained.
In response, Seoul reiterated its stance that Pyongyang should take measures to prevent a recurrence of the 2008 fatal shooting incident, guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists and ensure South Korean properties in the resort facilities.