Looking back at the failed attempts at holding inter-Korean talks over the past six years, one can easily spot the problems with Seoul’s approach to devising and implementing its North Korea policy. North Korea’s attitude was, at least this time around, secondary.
Concerning the issue in question of rank of the delegation heads at the talks, a senior Blue House official explained that it is “not desirable for the future of inter-Korean relations to force the same kinds of submission and humiliation on the other side that North Korea did in the past.” The official also asked, “whether it is possible to trust an agreement made between representatives at different levels.” This reasoning is rather difficult to fathom. It was South Korea that proposed minister-level talks and then named a vice minister as its representative. And it is North Korea that should feel humiliated by the gesture.
The agreements reached at working-level talks on June 9 assumed that talks would be held between ministers. There were to be five representatives, rather than the three typically presented in vice ministerial talks, and North Korea said its delegation leader would be a “minister-level authority.” The reference to “submission and humiliation” is also an insult to the efforts of previous administrations and their Unification Ministers. And Seoul’s declaration that it cannot trust previous agreements means President Park Geun-hye’s “trust-building process” for the Korean Peninsula is basically starting from nothing. This is an incredibly presumptuous decision by the administration.
There certainly is room to question whether Kang Ji-yong, chief of the secretariat for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF) that Pyongyang named as delegation head, could really be considered “minister-level.” But North Korea is just doing things the way it always has. Having no unification ministry of its own, it always named representatives according to the situation, and Kang’s title puts him at more or less the same level as previous senior representatives. If Seoul really wanted to break this precedent and insist on equal rankings for the representatives, it should have allowed for enough time to discuss the matter and win an agreement rather than trying to force the issue unilaterally. There is little sign of forethought in the decision not to participate in the talks if the senior representative was not going to be Kim Yang-gon, director of the Workers’ Party of (North) Korea United Front Department. Most people familiar with inter-Korean relations will tell you that Kim’s status is not equivalent to the South Korean Unification Minister. If the South Korean government thought Pyongyang would agree, it was being naive; if it knew all along that Pyongyang would refuse, then it lacks credibility.
The first chance in a long time to have inter-Korean talks has now dissipated, and the cold spell looks set to continue for some time. But Seoul should not be giving up its efforts to get talks going again. If it can’t make some headway toward improving relations now, it may be in for as rough a five years at the Lee Myung-bak administration experienced.
Moreover, the international efforts to denuclearize the peninsula will only gain strength when inter-Korean relations are in better shape. There are other ways to move ahead: holding working-level talks instead of problematic minister-level talks, or promoting the whole thing to the prime minister-level. Whatever the case, both sides need to be actively engaged and considerate of each other’s situation.
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