Delegations announced for inter-Korean talks

Posted on : 2018-01-08 16:43 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Lack of disagreement over ministerial ranks is marked difference past dialogue sessions
The two men who will lead their respective sides at the inter-Korean dialogue on Jan. 9: South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon (left) and North Korea Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) chairman Ri Son-kwon. (Yonhap News)
The two men who will lead their respective sides at the inter-Korean dialogue on Jan. 9: South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon (left) and North Korea Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) chairman Ri Son-kwon. (Yonhap News)

South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon will be sitting down with North Korea Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) chairman Ri Son-kwon for the first inter-Korean talks under the Moon Jae-in administration on Jan. 9. North Korea announced a list of the five members of its delegation, including Ri. South Korea sent its own list of five the day before, including Cho, on Jan. 7.

A Ministry of Unification announced on the afternoon of Jan. 7 that Pyongyang had sent a list of the members of its delegation, headed by Ri as CPRF chairman. The other four members included CPRF vice chairman Jon Jong-su, Vice Minister of Physical Culture and Sports Won Kil-u, CPRF director Hwang Chung-song, and National Olympic Committee of the DPRK member Ri Kyong-sik.

A day earlier, South Korea announced its list of five delegates, including Cho as senior representative along with Vice Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung; Second Vice Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Roh Tae-kang; Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ahn Moon-hyun; and Kim Ki-hong, vice president of games planning for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organizing committee.

The two delegations appeared to have been balanced in their composition. In the case of the senior representatives, the decision appeared more or less a foregone conclusion: while Ri answered Cho’s Jan. 2 proposal to hold senior-level inter-Korean talks on Jan. 9 by reopening the inter-Korean dialogue channel at Panmunjeom the following day, the telephone notice on Jan. 5 was made with Ri as sender and Cho as receiver.

The additional members of the two delegations reflect a suitable mixture of officials in inter-Korean relations and sports, which analysts saw as signaling plans to focus discussions on the initially proposed agenda of improvements in inter-Korean relations, including a North Korean delegation’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The CPRF, which is to be in charge of the North Korean delegation in practical terms, was upgraded at a Supreme People’s Council meeting in June 2016 from a peripheral Workers’ Party organization to an official state organization. With its formal status as a state organization established, the entire process – including the proposal of talks, acceptance of the offer, and decision on the lists of delegate members – appears to be going ahead without any of the “echelon” disputes that surfaced ahead of inter-Korean talks during the Park Geun-hye administration in 2013.

North Korea’s approach to the talks has differed from the past in many respects. Frequently, it has engaged in tense “blinking contests” over trivial matters such as the date or venue of the talks and the delegation members. On Jan. 7, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) wrote, “To use improper pretexts and legal and institutional tools to prevent communication and intercourse by people at all levels and suppress the mood of unity in the North is ultimately at odds with the improvement of inter-Korean relations and is nothing more than a deceptive gambit to mislead opinion here and abroad.” But soon afterwards, the North announced a final list of delegates that matched those provided by the South the day before in terms of rank.

“It’s a good sign that there hasn’t been the kind of war of nerves seen in the past,” a senior South Korean government official said.

“It looks like Kim Jong-un’s conclusion in his New Year’s address about cooperating for the success of the Pyeongchang Olympics has had an impact,” the official added.

The list of delegation members also suggests Seoul’s intent to have the Ministry of Unification play a central role in future improvements in inter-Korean relations. It is seen as highly unusual to have both the Minister and Vice Minister of Unification included on a delegation for inter-Korean talks. Similarly, the North Korean side has both the CPRF chairman and vice chairman participating.

“As far as I know, this will be the first time the Minister and Vice Minister of Unification have participated in talks together,” a senior Ministry of Unification official said, adding that this “certainly seems to send the message that the Ministry of Unification is to play a guiding role in the matter of improving inter-Korean relations.” The approach means abandoning the methods of the Park administration – when the Blue House shut the ministry out to pursue inter-Korean dialogue on its own – and returning to past methods under the ministry’s direction.

For now, the talks appear likely to focus on the matter of North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics. Both the South and North Korean delegations include two sports-related figures.

“North Korea’s participation at Pyeongchang is not a simple matter,” explained a South Korean government official.

“There are a lot of issues where the two sides need to coordinate their opinions, including how many North Korean athletes will be able to compete in which events, how to discuss things with the International Olympics Committee (IOC), what to do in terms of the North Korean cheering squad, and how to get a [South and North Korean] joint entrance at the opening ceremony even if there isn’t enough time left to field a unified team,” the official said.

In 2017, the South Korean government made proposals to the North for inter-Korean Red Cross talks for divided family reunions and military talks to prevent unintended clashes with North Korea. According to Seoul, those offers “still stand.” But the delegations for the upcoming talks do not include any Red Cross members or military officials.

“Our priority for now is focusing on the matter of North Korean participation at the Pyeongchang Olympics,” the senior South Korean government official said.

“It looks like it will be a step-by-step approach, where progress on this issue can provide a basis of trust for proceeding to other issues,” the official predicted.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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