North avoids talks with South

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North avoids talks with South

A proposal to hold a high-level government meeting between South and North Korea today fell through because of Pyongyang’s persistent and unreasonable demands, Seoul said yesterday.

“North Korea has made [stopping] the anti-Pyongyang leaflets a precondition of the talks,” said Lim Byeong-cheol, spokesman of the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. “Although it is our position to resolve pending issues through inter-Korean dialogue, we cannot accept an unreasonable demand to have a meeting.

“It is regretful that the high-level government contact could not take place on Thursday as planned because of the North’s attitude,” Lim said yesterday.

Earlier yesterday morning, the secretariat of the North’s National Defense Commission sent a message to the National Security Office of the South Korean presidential office to reiterate its complaints about civic groups’ sending propaganda leaflets critical of the Kim Jong-un regime across the demilitarized zone via balloons and the Park Geun-hye administration’s refusal to stop them.

“The South has turned a blind eye on them, arguing that there are no legal grounds to stop them,” the message was quoted as saying by the Ministry of Unification. “The South has no interest in creating conditions for improving inter-Korean ties and dialogues, and it is advancing in the direction of thwarting the plan for a high-level contact.”

The North’s highest decision-making body argued that it is up to the South to decide whether it wants to hold a high-level contact or continue allowing the leaflets to be dispatched.

Unification Ministry spokesman Lim reiterated yesterday that a government in a democratic society cannot control such activities by private groups.

“We are actually skeptical about the North’s sincerity to restore inter-Korean relations,” Lim said, “since it makes the leaflet issue the precondition for the talks.”

After vice-ministerial-level talks in February ended with no progress, the South Korean government proposed to the North in August to have another high-level contact. The North accepted the proposal when a top delegation made a surprise visit to the South on Oct. 4.

“If the South picks a convenient date between late October and early November, we will come to the table,” Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, director of the General Political Bureau of the Army, was quoted as saying at the time.

The South Korean government, then, proposed to the North to meet at the truce village of Panmunjom on Oct. 30, which is today. Instead of responding to the proposal, Pyongyang continued to threaten the South, complaining about the leaflets. Its military even fired antiaircraft rounds toward the balloons on Oct. 10. “Hwang and the delegation brought up the high-level government talks and then presented preconditions in order to secure an advantageous spot in future negotiations,” said Jeong Se-hyun, former unification minister and president of Wonkwang University. “A war of nerves, after all, caused the promised talks to fall through.”

Another expert, Jeung Young-Tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Hwang wanted nearly a month before holding the talks in order to use that time to make the North’s position more advantageous regarding pending issues such as the leaflets and the western maritime border, called the Northern Limit Line.

The North, however, changed its mind about dialogue with the South after the situation developed unfavorably, he said. Recently, Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the timing of the South’s takeover of wartime operational control from the United States until the South Korean military is ready to properly counter the North’s intensifying threats.

Analysts said another obstacle in resuming inter-Korean talks and thawing frozen ties between the two governments is whether North Korea will apologize for its deadly attacks of 2010.

In the South, many are exhorting the government to lift heavy sanctions imposed on the Communist regime that bar all exchanges and virtually all trade. The sanctions, known as the May 24 measures, were imposed by the Lee Myung-bak administration in response to the North’s torpedoing of the South’s warship Cheonan.

President Park even mentioned earlier this month that the two Koreas must meet and seriously talk about the May 24 measures, hinting that she was willing to lift them.

With such a mood of reconciliation, an apology from Pyongyang was seen as the last remaining hurdle.

The North, however, has always denied responsibility for the Cheonan sinking. It has said its artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island later that year, in which four people were killed, was provoked by the South.

North Korea has strategically used its apology as a political bargaining chip. And in the past, Pyongyang has only agreed to apologize when it was desperate to turn around the situation with the South.

“The North has a pattern of using ambiguous words, making it unclear who is issuing an apology,” said former Unification Minister Jeong. “And usually it concludes that both sides should work together to prevent a recurrence of a similar incident.”

The first-ever apology for one of the North’s provocations against the South was made in May 1972 by Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea and grandfather of ruler Kim Jong-un.

During a face-to-face meeting with Lee Hu-rak, the chief of the South’s spy agency who was in Pyongyang on a secret diplomatic mission, Kim apologized for a 1968 failed assassination attempt against then-President Park Chung Hee, father of current President Park.

“It was committed by the extreme leftists without my knowledge,” Kim was quoted as saying. “I feel apologetic to President Park.”

A group of 31 special agents infiltrate South Korea and almost got in the Blue House in an attempt to kill the South Korean leader on Jan. 21, 1968, but failed. The guerillas killed dozens of civilians in the attempt.

The North’s founder also issued an apology for the infamous axe murders in the border village of Panmunjom.

Two American soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers during a tree-trimming mission in the Joint Security Area inside the demilitarized zone on Aug. 18, 1978. Three days later, the United States launched a show of force to cut the tree down by mobilizing more than 800 armed men, backed by attack helicopters, fighter planes, B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier.

Kim, then, issued an apology for the incident.

His son and successor Kim Jong-il issued an apology for a submarine’s infiltration into the city of Gangneung in September 1996.

At a 2002 summit in Pyongyang, he also apologized to then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

It remains to be seen if current ruler Kim Jong-un will issue an apology to the South. Although the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island took place during the reign of his father, there is a high possibility that he, as heir apparent, masterminded and directed the attacks, analysts said.

They pointed out that Kim Jong-il, when he was heir apparent to his father, orchestrated a series of terrorist activities to prove his capabilities.

He was the mastermind of the 1983 Rangoon bombing, a failed attempt to assassinate then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan. Seventeen officials including ministers were killed. He was also known as the culprit behind the Korean Air bombing of 1987, in which 115 were killed.

Kim Jong-il never apologized for those two incidents.

According to government sources, the two Koreas tried once before to get over the Cheonan’s sinking during the Lee Myung-bak administration by agreeing to express regret for incidents that took place in western waters.

The ambiguous statement was considered as a tactical solution because Pyongyang could argue that it means both Koreas were responsible while Seoul can call it an apology.

But the negotiations fell apart.

When the two Koreas’ militaries had a meeting in Panmunjom on Oct. 15, speculation was high that the issue of an apology was discussed. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, who is known to have led the operation to sink the Cheonan, attended the meeting as the North’s chief negotiator.

A senior Seoul official later said the South made clear that the North is responsible for the Cheonan’s sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. The North, however, did not budge in its former position, he said.


BY SER MYO-JA, LEE YOUNG-JONG [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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