Bracing for the worstThe second round of working-level talks for a high-level meeting between South and North Korea fell apart yesterday. The North Korean delegation, which proposed the idea of high-level talks, stormed out of the room yesterday afternoon shortly after the second day of talks started, arguing that the country was not responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan warship. That’s a sharp departure from its earlier position that all suspicions involving the tragedy will be completely cleared up in talks. In the first round of the talks, South Korea demanded that the North accept responsibility for the sinking of the warship and its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island as well as promise not to repeat provocations in the future.
The reason why the North abruptly reversed its position is not yet clear. But the North Korean delegation made an issue of South Korean media reports saying that Pyongyang appeared extremely anxious to clinch high-level talks by any means.
The process leading to the rupture of the working-level talks gives us a clue as to why the North proposed high-level talks. In the first day of the working-level talks, North Korea argued that the issue of easing military tensions - as well as the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling - should be put on the table for high-level talks. Faced with South Korea’s intense accusations tied to the two attacks in the preliminary talks, the North sought to water down the issue by denouncing its counterpart’s recent military reinforcement. However, after South Korean media churned out reports that put the North in a bad light, the delegation abruptly stomped out of the room, convinced that it cannot achieve its original goal of organizing high-level talks. In other words, North Korea most likely came into the talks looking to get away with its two earlier provocations, rather than take responsibility for them.
Whatever the process might have been, the high-level meeting was ruptured by the North. Defying our earlier expectations that North Korea may finally take measures to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the North only reaffirmed our hesitations to accept its overtures. The problem is that there is almost no possibility that the North will come back to the table. The chance that our government will propose a meeting with the North is also slim. That leaves clouds hanging over the peninsula - and it could get worse. It is time for the administration to keep a close watch on the North’s potential provocations and fully prepare for them.