South, North only agree to mid-level Dec. talks

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South, North only agree to mid-level Dec. talks

South and North Korea agreed on Thursday to hold a vice-ministerial meeting in Kaesong on Dec. 11 as part of efforts to follow through on agreements reached over the summer.

The agreement on the vice-ministerial talks, reached after 11 hours of negotiations at the border village of Panmunjom, prompted disappointment that the two sides failed to agree to a ministerial, high-level dialogue.

“South and North Korea agreed to send a delegation led by vice-ministerial officials for the discussion,” Jeong Joon-hee, spokesman for the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, said on Friday. The agenda for the talks will be comprehensive, he said.

Kaesong, where the Dec. 11 talks will be held, is where the two sides run a joint industrial complex where 124 South Korean companies employ over 54,000 North Korean workers, the last vestige of inter-Korean business cooperation from days of better ties.

Kim Ki-woong, head of the Unification Ministry’s special office for inter-Korean talks, led Seoul’s delegation, while the North’s was led by Hwang Chol, a senior official on the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

It was earlier expected that the two Koreas would agree to send ministers for a high-level dialogue to untangle a number of inter-Korean issues. Spokesman Jeong said the Dec. 11 talks are a follow-up discussion to the Aug. 25 joint agreement.

“At the Aug. 25 joint agreement, senior-level officials had discussions and reached a middle ground,” he said. “And the upcoming talks are a follow-up measure to realize what was agreed upon. We concluded that vice-ministerial-level delegations would be enough to cover pending issues.”

He added that Seoul first proposed the vice-ministerial level at the table on Thursday.

North Korea expert Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst with the Seoul-based Sejong Institute think tank, said the decision on a vice-ministerial-level talk “reflected a lack of determination from both sides in seeking a breakthrough” in inter-Korean relations.

“There is a wide gap between what minister-level officials could achieve and vice-ministerial officials could from such talks,” Cheong said.

Trouble could arise before Dec. 11 over the selection of a chief delegate. If Pyongyang sends an official deemed by Seoul to be below the rank of vice minister, it could boycott the talks in protest. Such a dispute occurred in June 2013, when the South Korean government downgraded its chief delegate to vice unification minister from minister after discovering the North was sending a director of the secretariat office at the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, who Seoul considered well below the ministerial level. In protest of Seoul’s move, Pyongyang canceled the scheduled two-day dialogue in Seoul.

The working-level talks and scheduled vice-ministerial talks are all part of efforts to deliver on a joint Aug. 25 agreement that called for holding reunions of separated families and improving inter-Korean ties by bolstering exchanges. The August agreement eased tensions on the peninsula that brought the two Koreas to the brink of an armed conflict along the heavily fortified border.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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