June 12. (by Kim Jeong-hyo
By Gil Yun-hyung and Kim Su-heon, staff reporters
If everything had gone as planned, government talks between North and South Korea would have been in full swing on June 12. Instead, the South Korean Prime Minister was making comments about the issue of rank that had led to the cancellation of the talks, seemingly obsessed with trivial issues of protocol. It was business as usual for North Korea, which declined to answer phone calls from the South on the Red Cross line. Inter-Korean relations are rapidly deteriorating to the status quo prior to June 6, the day that North Korea made the offer for talks.
“North Korea did not answer our phone call at 9 am when the work day began or our phone call at 4 pm when it ended,” said a Ministry of Unification official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We tried calling them all day long, but they never answered.”
While Pyongyang had notified its counterparts in the South that the talks were being “put on hold,” the actual message seems to be that the North is willing to cancel the talks altogether. When North Korea informed Seoul that it was delaying the talks on June 11, it used inflammatory terms such as “provocation” and “ridicule.”
The South Korean government is not showing any sides of backing down, either. In a plenary session at the National Assembly on June 12, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said, “Talks are possible when both sides agree that their representatives are equivalent in rank. There is no legitimacy to talks in which one side is being humiliated. Until now, South Korea has always been the one that yielded to all of North Korea’s demands. Now, it is time for the North and South to take part in talks on an equal footing.” Chung even employed the phrase “the pride of the Korean people” in his remarks.
When Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae met with reporters, he said, “The talks are not on hold; they have been called off. If we are to move toward a new phase in inter-Korean relations, North Korea must show that it is sincere, too.”
The slim hopes that the talks would help improve inter-Korean relations, which had fallen to pieces during the five-year presidency of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), and activate the trust-building process for the Korean peninsula espoused by new president Park Geun-hye are being dashed.
“This is a product of the mutual distrust that set in during the military tensions that lasted through the five years of the Lee administration and over the past six months,” said Paik Hak-soon, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, when asked to identify the reason that the talks were cancelled. In Paik’s analysis, while the superficial reason for the talks breaking down was the conflict over the rank of the delegation heads, the real reason can be found in the lack of trust between the two sides.
The recommendation of experts is that the North and South must build back this trust through concrete action before they can reconvene for talks.
“The important thing right now is not the rank of the negotiators. The important thing is finding solutions for the urgent matters affecting the two Koreas,” said Yonsei University professor Moon Chung-in. “As Park said, it is only by starting with the simple problems that the trust-building process can gradually take effect.”
There are also some experts who argue that Park’s micromanagement of the relationship with North Korea is making it harder to find a solution to problems. “Park should delegate the work to the Ministry of Unification, assess their performance and hold them accountable,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University. “By trying to control everything, the Blue House makes it harder for the Ministry of Unification to bring its expertise to bear.”
There are also some observers who think that North Korea must adapt to the changing international environment.
“Trends in the way the international community views affairs on the Korean peninsula are also connected to inter-Korean relations, but North Korea is still making decisions based solely on its own standards,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University. “North Korea needs to become more realistic.”
“Rather than demanding unilaterally that South Korea yield to its demands as it has done in the past, North Korea must start being more cooperative if inter-Korean relations are to improve,” said Ryu Dong-ryeol, director of the Police Science Institute. “It must not abandon the talks and search for some new pretext for its actions.”
On June 13, North Korea issued a statement harshly criticized the South through the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, saying South Korea created obstacles to talks and, “The recent impolite and immoral provocative behavior of the puppet group made us think once again whether it will be possible either to properly discuss matters or improve the inter-Korean relations even if the talks between authorities are opened in the future”.
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