Inter-Korean talks called off over delegation leader rank disagreements

Posted on : 2013-06-12 12:00 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
South and North unable to agree on who would lead negotiations, both insisting on minister-level officials

By Kang Tae-ho, senior staff writer

The disagreement over who would lead the North and South Korean delegations to the government talks that had been scheduled to take place in Seoul on June 12 and 13 led to the talks being canceled.

Considering that the talks would have been the first to be held since Park Geun-hye became president of South Korea, there had been considerable expectation that they would serve as a starting point for improving relations between South and North. But instead, they have shown once again how far inter-Korean relations still have to go.

“There have been a total of 606 points of contact and meetings between North and South Korea since the July 4th Joint Declaration, but there has been nothing like this,” said one expert on the issue of the divided peninsula.

At 1pm on June 11, officials from North and South met to exchange the lists of the five-member delegations to the talks. But as soon as North Korea received the list, they objected to the delegates that South Korea had selected. The issue was that Kim Nam-sik, vice minister of unification, was listed as the head of the delegation.

During the working-level meeting on June 9, North Korea had agreed that the delegations would be led by minister-level officials. North Korea insisted that, since the delegation head that the South had chosen was a vice minister, he would not be on the same level as the head of their delegation, who they claimed was a minister-level official.

The South Korean government also took issue with the head of the North Korean delegation, which Pyongyang claimed was a minister-level figure: Kang Ji-yong, chief of the secretariat for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF).

“The chief of the secretariat for the CPRF cannot be seen as the equivalent of the South Korean Minister of Unification in terms of overall authority or responsibility,” said a Ministry of Unification official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The CPRF has a number of vice chairs, and the chief of the secretariat is below them.”

The South Korean government also said that it could not accept North Korea’s unilateral notification that it was delaying the talks because South Korea’s vice minister of unification was not of an appropriate rank when the North had selected the chief of the secretariat for the CPRF to be the head of its own delegation.

The take-away point from the talks being scuttled by a disagreement about the rank of the delegation leader is that North and South Korea are not sufficiently considerate of each other. Two points worth noticing are the failure of both governments to reach a consensus on the rank of the delegation heads during the working-level meeting on June 9 and their subsequent insistence on making an issue of this.

In light of past practices, it was inappropriate for the South Korean government’s decision to specifically request that Kim Yang-gon, director of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) United Front Department, lead the North’s delegation, as Kim had not once led a delegation in minister-level talks between the Koreas. The Blue House also seems to have put excessive pressure on North Korea when it once again raised this issue despite the fact that the North had not accepted the request.

“The Ministry of Unification, which had a lot of experience with inter-Korean talks, probably did not believe that Kim Yang-gon would be sent as delegation head,” one former high-ranking official in the Ministry said. “The Ministry probably had little room to maneuver since it was constrained by the micromanagement of the Blue House.”

North Korea’s behavior was also problematic. Even if the North believed that the director of the KWP United Front Department is somewhat higher in rank than the South Korean Minister of Unification, that is not a convincing reason why he could not serve as the delegation head. The North ignored South Korea’s repeated requests that the director of the KWP United Front Department be the head of the delegation and instead selected, not one of the vice directors of the department, but rather a mere secretary of the CPRF - an organization that is not even part of the KWP. This aroused suspicions that the North was not entering the talks in good faith.

Further, North Korea essentially contradicted itself when it backed out of the talks on the grounds that the South Korean delegation head was the Vice-Minister of Unification while refusing to have the head of the KWP United Front Department participate in the talks.

The CPRF, which is an affiliate of the KWP, is responsible for matters related to unification of the peninsula and propaganda toward South Korea. Kang Ji-yong is believed to be the second or third highest official inside the CPRF.

During the 41 years that talks have been held between the two Koreans since the 1972 July 4th North-South Joint Statement, this is the first time that a meeting has fallen through because both sides could not bridge their differences over the rank of the delegation head.

“Since these would have been the first talks in a long time, both sides should have been generous and tried to persuade each other, even if they were dissatisfied about some points,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a veteran researcher at the Sejong Institute. “I hope that the customs from past inter-Korean talks will not be ignored, which would mean that they would have to start from scratch. I hope that instead the talks will mature through the shared experience of holding meetings together.”

North and South Korea have withdrawn all of the liaison officers who had been discussing the working-level issues related to the talks at Panmunjom on the afternoon of June 11. No additional meetings or talks are scheduled at the moment.

“The fact that the talks have fallen through does not mean that the official-level talks themselves will never be held,” said an official at the Ministry of Unification who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If North Korea brings an appropriate delegation leader to the table, we are always ready to take part in talks.”

Nevertheless, it appears inevitable that a chill will linger over inter-Korean relations for some time. It is expected that both North and South will increase the intensity of mutual recriminations as they blame each other for the cancellation of the talks that had been scheduled for this week.


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