Inter-Korean talks a blame game

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Inter-Korean talks a blame game

Seoul and Pyongyang pointed fingers at each other over two days of high-level inter-Korean talks, coming to a close without any agreement on how to help improve bilateral ties or setting a date for a follow-up meeting.

Discussions between the South Korean delegation, led by Vice Minister of Unification Hwang Boo-gi, and a North Korean delegation led by Jon Jong-su, the vice director of the secretariat for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, kicked off Friday morning at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

However, talks came to an abrupt close Saturday evening after North Korea called for the session to end, leading to concerns that the first such meeting in eight years between the two sides would instead serve as a setback for relations.

Seoul officials said the primary reason negotiations faltered was due to Pyongyang’s insistence that the Mount Kumgang tourism program be reinstated as a prerequisite for any other discussions, including talks for the regularization of reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

“The North focused on raising the Mount Kumgang tourism issue and linking it with the family reunions,” Vice Minister Hwang told reporters on Saturday after the talks. “We emphasized that the issue of family reunions, which is a humanitarian issue, was different in character from resuming tourism on Mount Kumgang, and that it was inappropriate to link the two.”

North Korea reportedly proposed that if tourism on Mount Kumgang were to be reinstated in March or April, inter-Korean family reunions could be discussed.

Tours at the scenic North Korean mountain resort were suspended after a female South Korean tourist, 53-year-old Park Wang-ja, was fatally shot by a North Korean soldier on July 11, 2008. The program, started in 1998, was halted immediately after her death and has since become a symbol of frozen inter-Korean ties. Seoul has insisted on more safety guarantees for South Koreans to prevent a repeat of such an incident.

In two days, the South and North Korean delegations, composed of three members each, met over five sessions.

Hwang said he had explained to Pyongyang on the first day that “nuclear weapons are an impediment to advancing South-North relations, so the issue must be resolved.”

However, because Pyongyang repeatedly continued to emphasize that it would discuss inter-Korean family reunions only after Mount Kumgang tourism was specified in the agreement, South Korea’s top agenda items failed to be discussed in detail.

Those included facilitating a letter exchange between war-torn families and verifying surviving relatives, a proposal to build an international peace park in the demilitarized zone, and resolving customs and communications issues at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

South Korea also sought to push for a channel for inter-Korean environmental cooperation, the building of infrastructure to guarantee public welfare, and cultural exchange.

The two sides also failed to set a date for follow-up talks, indicating somewhat of an impasse for future government dialogue.

Hwang said that his delegation had suggested to Pyongyang that they remain in contact over the Panmunjom channel, but added that North Korea had not given a clear answer.

South Korea proposed to Pyongyang on Saturday another round of talks for 10 a.m. on Monday.

But in response, “North Korea unilaterally gave the position that the South Korean side does not seem to have any will to resume the tourism program, and so therefore, there is no need to negotiate any further,” Hwang said.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on Saturday that the South had refused to discuss fundamental issues, including the resumption of the Mount Kumgang tourism program, and insisted on “unreasonable claims.”

It went on to say that the North Korean delegation put in “sincere efforts to propose constructive plans to resume the most urgent and feasible tourism on Mount Kumgang, resolving speedily the issue of scattered families, along with the revitalization of diverse civilian exchanges.”

Because of South Korea’s position and attitude, it added, the talks ended without anything coming to fruition.

Uriminzokkiri, the North’s state-run propaganda website, further blamed South Korea on Sunday for the talks falling through, saying it had been slanderous and defamatory, “spoiling the mood for talks and the improvement of relations.”

It also cited President Park Geun-hye’s speech on Dec. 1 to Unesco as an issue, saying that the speech had attacked Pyongyang over nuclear threats and human rights issues, and warned South Koreans involved in improving inter-Korean relations to “pay heed to their words and actions.”

The vice-ministerial meeting over the weekend was, in part, the result of a breakthrough agreement on Aug. 25, when both sides agreed to hold high-level talks to work on improving relations. This round of talks initially raised expectations that this kind of inter-Korean governmental dialogue could become regularized.

However, with the breakdown in negotiations, some experts have expressed doubt over the prospect of future talks.

Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea and a senior analyst with the Seoul-based Sejong Institute think tank, pointed out that the results were “already predictable” if the South Korean government had held the position that the resumption of tourism on Mount Kumgang was not open for discussion.

If the Park Geun-hye government did not intend to discuss the program’s reinstatement, he added, then it would have been more appropriate to instead hold working-level talks.

Still, a senior official from the Ministry of Unification said on Sunday that the talks had not been completely unproductive. “We do not consider these talks to be completely over. South-North relations will continue on,” he said, adding that there were no discussions on follow-up talks at the moment.

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