North blames Seoul for collapse of negotiations

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North blames Seoul for collapse of negotiations

North Korea demanded South Korea take full responsibility for the aborted high-level talks this week but also vowed not to change its main negotiator, the issue that forced the cancellation.

In its first response to the collapse of the highly anticipated inter-Korean talks Tuesday, North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued a statement yesterday blaming Seoul for the failure, saying it went back on its word.

An unnamed spokesperson told the official Korean Central News Agency that Seoul promised to send its unification minister as the leader of its delegation but then went back on its word.

“Our delegation was about to depart from Pyongyang [on Tuesday] but we suddenly got notice that the South would send a vice unification minister, not the unification minister,” the spokesman said. “The Southern side told us a minister-level meeting at the beginning and promised to send their unification minister, but they replaced him with a lower-level person at the last minute before the talks.”

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it didn’t make such a promise.

“We didn’t ensure Pyongyang that we would send a minister,” a Unification Ministry official told reporters. “We simply said it would be better to have a minister-level dialogue. But if they had problems with that, we would send a proper-level official as their counterpart.”

North Korea informed Seoul Tuesday evening they were walking away from the talks, which would have been the first in six years, because Seoul was sending a negotiator who was insultingly low in rank compared to its lead negotiator.

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

But Seoul considers Kang a vice-minister-level official. It said if Pyongyang wanted a minister-level official, it should send Kim Yang-gon, a ruling Workers’ Party secretary and the head of the United Front Department, an organization under the ruling party in charge of Southern affairs.

North Korea’s committee also said it was nonsense to suggest sending a party secretary like Kim Yang-gon to an inter-Korean meeting as that has never been done.

The Unification Ministry said that assertion was untrue. In 1994, when then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo had an inter-Korean meeting, his counterpart was Kim Yong-sun, a ruling party secretary in charge of Southern issues, the same position now held by Kim Yang-gon.

North Korea unwittingly acknowledged that it has sent a lower-level official to past ministerial-level talks with Seoul.

The committee explained that it always sent a so-called “chief cabinet councilor” to the 21 ministerial-level talks between 2000 and 2007 as counterparts to Seoul’s Unification Minister, and the councilor was lower in rank than Kang.

However, the committee said the councilors were also taking the position of first deputy director of the committee’s secretariat, which is beneath Kang. “For these talks, we named the director of the secretariat, as a way of expressing our respect to the Southern government, not the first deputy director,” the committee said.

Some analysts have pointed out that North Korea sent a vice-ministerial-level official for most of the 21 cabinet minister-talks, a diplomatic snub for South Korea. But the two liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun didn’t mind.

“A chief cabinet councilor is a vice-ministerial-level post,” Shin Beom-chul, director of North Korean military studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, told the Korea JoongAng Daily by phone. “Based on responsibilities and duties, it is right for North Korea to send the head of the United Front Department.”

When it comes to the political status of the secretariat, the committee said it is a high-ranking organization with sizable authority, calling it “an official organization specialized in unification business.” It said it was the secretariat that announced the proposal for the inter-Korean talks.

South says it can’t recognize the committee as the highest governmental organization dealing with unification affairs.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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