High-level talks between North and South Korea planned for today after a six-year hiatus and threats of war have been scrapped, officials in Seoul said, following a seemingly minor disagreement over the diplomatic ranks of chief delegates.
North Korea's offer to hold the talks came after weeks of threats in March and April to attack the South and the United States. The offer came as the North apparently sought to reopen lucrative business deals and the South was trying to mend ties with its volatile, heavily armed neighbour.
Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, said yesterday Pyongyang had told Seoul that the South's choice for its chief delegate for the talks, the deputy unification minister, was not appropriate and a "grave provocation".
Seoul had hoped Pyongyang would send a senior ruling Workers' Party secretary known to be a close adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as an indication that it was serious about the meeting. But North Korea sent notice that it would be a relatively unknown bureaucrat who would be leading the delegation, the ministry spokesman said.
The decision was "abnormal" and the person chosen not fit to be a genuine representative of North Korea's leadership, he said, adding: "Our government regrets North Korea's position."
The disagreement was reminiscent of seemingly minor details that derailed or delayed progress in previous meetings.
It was not clear if North Korea was withdrawing its offer of talks altogether and returning to hostile tactics, but the South said it remained open for dialogue when the North was ready.
North Korea may also have been prodded into the offer to hold talks by China, its sole major diplomatic ally and economic backer. Pyongyang's overture came as US President Barack Obama met President Xi Jinping for talks in California.
The inter-Korea talks would have been the first high-level meeting between the two countries in nearly six years. The South had hoped the talks would lead to the reopening of the Kaesong industrial zone and a suspended tours programme to Mount Kumgang, a scenic area near the border, just inside North Korea.
The North closed its money-spinning Kaesong venture with South Korean companies - that earned US$90 million a year in foreign exchange - in April, amid spiralling tension on the Korean peninsula. The Mount Kumgang tourist zone was closed in 2008 when a North Korean guard shot a South Korean tourist and then refused to apologise.