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Ping-Pong Diplomacy Out

Abruptly, Pyongyang Withdraws From Joint Osaka Team

Mar 28,2001
In another blast of cold air for inter-Korean relations, North Korea reversed itself Wednesday and told the South that it will not form a joint team for next month's world table tennis championships in Japan, the Unification Ministry said.

The cancellation, which was conveyed through liaison offices at the truce village of Panmunjom, shattered hopes for an inter-Korean joint team that would have been the first since the 1991 world tournament. This year's tournament will be held in Osaka from April 23 to May 5.

The North's table tennis body told its counterpart in Seoul the decision was due to "lack of time for preparation."

The agreement on a joint team was reached during a five-day visit by Kim Han-gill, Seoul's culture and tourism minister, earlier this month. Some North Korea watchers played down the significance of the agreement at the time because it was only a verbal agreement.

Seoul officials expressed surprise at the North's cancellation, which came one day after the South's new foreign team took office in a shakeup aimed to boost to President Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy toward the communist state.

The abrupt cancellation was the second this month by the North, which called off a key ministerial-level meeting, with a similarly vague explanation, just a few hours before the meeting was to begin.

The Culture and Tourism Ministry said in a statement, "The North's failure to keep its agreements can not only hurt inter-Korean relations, but can also create problems for the perceived reliability of both sides in the international community."

"There is no knowing why the North suddenly overturned the agreement," said a Unification Ministry official. "We plan to phone the North soon to express our regret."

Some government officials say the cancellations of the two meetings are probably a sign of displeasure at the U.S. administration's signals of a harder-line North Korean policy. The North, in turn, has resumed its anti-U.S. rhetoric.

With the United States still in the process of reviewing its policy toward North Korea, Pyongyang seems to want to "regulate the pace" of its dealings with the South.

"We think it is political. The only remaining issue between us was the uniform design," a South Korean table tennis federation official said.


by Lee Young-jong




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