Koreas spar over low-level talks

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Koreas spar over low-level talks

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed on holding working-level talks prior to a ministerial-level meeting in Seoul, but they had different opinions over the venue for the low-level dialogue.

Ahead of a cabinet minister-level meeting scheduled for Wednesday that Seoul suggested Thursday, North Korea once again proposed yesterday to have a working-level meeting first in the North’s border city of Kaesong, where the shuttered inter-Korean industrial park is located.

Seoul basically accepted the offer but asked for the low-level meeting to be held on the Southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom, instead of in the North.

“At around 4 p.m., after the inter-Korean hotlines at Panmunjom were reopened at 2 p.m., we sent a fax message to the North signed by Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae to his counterpart Kim Yang-gon, the head of the United Front Department [of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party],” Seoul’s Unification Ministry official told reporters. “In the fax message, we said we positively viewed the North’s acceptance of our proposal for holding a ministerial meeting on June 12 in Seoul and agreed on their proposal for working-level talks on June 9.”

“Still, we suggested the venue [for the working-level talk] should be the Peace House in Panmunjom, at 10 a.m.,” the official said. “Including a head of a Unification Ministry department, who will be chief representative, a total of three representatives will come to the table from the South.”

At the working-level talks tomorrow, both sides will plan the upcoming high-level dialogue among ministers, regarding the scale of the North Korean delegation visiting Seoul and specific schedules, the official said. The North further informed Seoul yesterday afternoon it has no other messages to convey at least until 9 a.m. today.

The North’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency yesterday reported an unnamed spokesperson of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, a mouthpiece of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, proposed working-level talks to Seoul first before holding a minister-to-minister dialogue.

“We view the South positively and promptly accepted our proposal of a government-to-government meeting,” the spokesman said. “However, considering the current circumstances that [inter-Korean talks] have been halted over the past years and mutual distrust at an extremely high level, we see that a North-South working-level contact is necessary ahead of the ministerial-level meeting that the Southern side proposed.

“In light of this, we propose to have a working-level contact first in Kaesong on June 9,” it continued. “For this, we will reopen the Red Cross communication channels at the Panmunjom starting 2 p.m. on June 7, and through these channels, we want the South to send their answer to our suggestion.”

North Korea cut off communication via the Panmunjom hotlines in March, denouncing the Seoul-Washington joint military drills.

On Thursday, Pyongyang proposed an official dialogue among authorities of the North and the South to discuss agenda items including the two shuttered cross-border businesses, Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang Resort, both of which have been shut. The regime let Seoul choose the time and place for the talk.

South Korean government swiftly accepted the proposal, and suggested a ministerial-level talk for Wednesday in Seoul.

As promised, North Korea yesterday resumed communications at 2 p.m. through the Panmunjom channels by making a phone call to Seoul first, the Unification Ministry official said.

Although North Korea proposed low-level talks first, it didn’t say it was opposed to a ministerial talk, Seoul said. “The proposal of a working-level meeting doesn’t mean North Korea refused the minister-level talk,” the Unification Ministry official said. “It is a sort of a preliminary talk before the ministers’ dialogue. Ministerial talks are confirmed to be held.”

When asked why the South selected the border village, not Kaesong, the official said, “We both need some time to prepare for the upcoming ministerial meeting, so in the light of distance, Panmunjom is an appropriate place for both sides. But we wouldn’t attribute further meaning to the venue.”

So far, the two Koreas have had a total of 21 ministerial-level meetings. The last ministerial talks were on May 29-June 1, 2007 in Seoul.

By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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