Cancellation of talks reflects North Korean insecurity

Abrupt cancellation of talks with South shows Pyongyang's ultra-sensitivity over protocol

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:35am


The abrupt cancellation of planned talks between North and South Korea this week underlines the huge challenges facing any "trust-building" process on the divided peninsula.

From the outset, the agreement to hold what would have been the first high-level dialogue for six years had looked vulnerable - dogged by disagreement over the agenda and other issues.

In the end, it was a matter of protocol - the North felt insulted by the South's nomination of a vice-minister as its chief delegate - that smothered the initiative.

The talks had been seen as a positive step forward, given that the two Koreas had spent most of March and April on full military alert, trading threats of nuclear war and counter-strikes.

Yesterday morning, the North wouldn't even pick up when the South called on a newly restored hotline. "We made an opening call at 9am, but the North did not answer," the South's Unification Ministry said.

Some analysts say the North's behaviour reflects a deep-rooted insecurity that balks at offering the merest hint of a concession.

"The weaker North Korea is, the more afraid it is to be seen as weak," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

"This makes it ultra-sensitive to issues of ritual and protocol."

The talks were to have focused on reopening two suspended commercial projects - the Kaesong joint industrial zone and South Korea tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort.

"These were important hard currency earners for Pyongyang and they wanted them back up and running," said Lankov.

"But ... the North leadership will never allow itself to be seen as making a political concession - even one that seems trivial."

Recent US-South Korea and US-China summits, and an upcoming China-South Korea summit have fuelled the impression of a united front against an increasingly isolated North Korea.

"I think North Korea was looking to relieve the pressure a bit by demonstrating some willingness to talk," said Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

"I was a little surprised by the abrupt cancellation ... but then the North doesn't really do compromise," he added.