South won’t cave in on talks

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South won’t cave in on talks

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After the inter-Korean talks were called off on Tuesday, workers yesterday remove tables and chairs from the venue for the meetings at the Grand Hilton Hotel in Hongeun-dong, Seoul. [NEWSIS]

President Park Geun-hye will not back down on the principle of sending a negotiator of the proper rank to any talks with North Korea, despite it leading to the last-minute cancellation by Pyongyang of high-level talks that were supposed to start yesterday.

Lee Jung-hyun, the senior presidential secretary for public affairs, said Park will not amend her choice of the leader of the South Korean delegation. “President Park once told me, ‘Forms dominate everything,’?” the close aide of Park told reporters yesterday. “Although she made that remark way ahead of this meeting, I think that idea sounds really rational.”

North Korea informed Seoul Tuesday evening they were walking away from the talks because Seoul was sending a negotiator who was insultingly low in rank compared to its own lead negotiator. Expectations had been high for the first high-level talks between Seoul and Pyongyang in six years since the last ministerial meeting in May 2007. But the agenda for the talks was never pinned down and the choice of chief negotiators was a source of friction from the start.

Pyongyang said it didn’t like Seoul’s chief negotiator, Vice-Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik, and demanded someone more important meet its chief delegate, Kang Ji-yong, director of the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

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Ryoo Kihl-jae

But Seoul considered Kang to be a vice-minister-level official.

North Korea has no minister in charge of unification affairs in its cabinet. Instead, they have the United Front Department, an organization under the ruling Workers’ Party in charge of Southern affairs and some espionage activities.

Also, there are some state-controlled independent organizations like the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea doing some similar jobs. “President Park is sternly sticking to her principle to normalize the wrong practice of [North Korea’s] ignoring the ranks [of negotiators],” another Blue House official said.

Ruling Saenuri Party members supported the president’s position and urged Pyongyang to show more sincerity about holding talks with Seoul.

“I doubt if North Korea considers us an equal partner for talks,” Hwang Woo-yea, chairman of the Saenuri Party, said at a meeting with senior members yesterday.

“Previously, we used to be so pleased and welcome any North Korean proposal for a talk,” Choi Kyung-hwan, a supreme councilor of the party, said. “We felt thankful even when Pyongyang demanded money in exchange for a dialogue. Those kind of wrongful practices led to this high-level meeting collapsing in advance [because the North thought it could bully us as in the past].”

Seoul’s Ministry of Unification said it had no plans to alter its team of five negotiators.

“The director North Korea was sending was a vice-ministerial-level official,” a Unification Ministry official said yesterday.

“The result that people expected didn’t happen,” Seoul’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told reporters. “But this could be a kind of growing pains to move forward to a new kind of inter-Korean relations.”

According to North Korean materials exclusively obtained by the JoongAng Ilbo, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea is just a civic group.

The “Politics Dictionary,” published in Pyongyang by a North Korean publisher in 1973, defines the committee as “a social group formed by a variety of figures from political parties and social entities.” It says the committee’s role is “to reveal and denounce the criminal schemes of U.S. imperialists and their collaborators.”

Kang’s duty as the director of the secretariat of the committee doesn’t appear to be minister-level. According to the “Great Joson Vocabulary Dictionary” published in Pyongyang in 1992, the director of the secretariat is “a person who assists high-ranking officials of the committee and helps their business.”

North Korea didn’t pick up the phone when Southern liaison officials called at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. through the Red Cross inter-Korean hotlines at the truce village of Panmunjom yesterday, according to the Unification Ministry.

North Korea cut off all communication through the hotlines at the border on March 8 in protest of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington and a new round of UN Security Council sanctions against the regime.

Communication through the hotlines resumed June 7, a day after Pyongyang abruptly proposed a high-level dialogue with Seoul, the first overturn in years of frosty inter-Korean relations.

South and North Korea have held a total of 21 ministerial-level talks between 2000 and 2007. It has not been uncommon for Pyongyang to walk away from meetings in advance or in the middle of them.

BY KIM HEE-JIN, lee young-jong [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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