On the eve of what are scheduled to be the first high-level talks between North and South Korea for six years, it was still unclear on Tuesday exactly who would be doing the talking.
As of midday (0300 GMT), South Korea was still waiting for the North to send the names of its negotiating team who will cross the land border on Wednesday and drive to the talks at the Grand Hilton hotel in Seoul.
“We have no idea when the North will convey their list of delegates,” a spokesman from Seoul’s Unification Ministry told AFP.
“We’ve been waiting since early this morning,” the spokesman said.
After months of elevated military tensions that triggered dramatic threats of nuclear war, it is enough for many on the Korean peninsula and beyond that the two Koreas are holding any sort of dialogue at all.
But if both sides are sincere about making tangible progress, then their delegations need to be headed by someone with the authority to negotiate and make decisions.
South Korea had wanted the two-day talks to be between its pointman on North Korea, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae, and his counterpart in Pyongyang, Kim Yang-Gon.
A dialogue at that ministerial level has not been held since 2007.
But North Korea refused, and the two sides ended up agreeing to field government officials with some ill-defined responsibility for inter-Korean affairs.
Once the North has named its chief representative, the South side will appoint an official of equal stature to lead its delegation.
The agenda is supposed to focus on a pair of suspended joint commercial projects, including the Kaesong industrial complex that North Korea effectively closed in April at the height of the recent tensions.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said on Tuesday she hoped the talks would mark a “first step” in a trust-building process to bring some permanent level of peace and stability to the Korean peninsula.
Just setting up the two-day meeting in Seoul, through a 17-hour negotiating session that ended early on Monday, required the kind of diplomatic resolve that has long been absent in inter-Korean relations, and analysts say it could be a tentative new start. It’s also a political and diplomatic victory for new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who expressed her country’s interest in talks and rebuilding trust even as she batted back North Korean war rhetoric with vows to hit back strongly if attacked.
“It’s very significant that they’re sitting down and talking at all ... after all the heated rhetoric this spring,” said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It shows political will. Both sides could have called it off.”
The main topics will be stalled rapprochement projects left over from friendlier days, including the resumption of operations at a jointly run factory park just north of the border. It was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation until Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April during heightened tensions that followed its February nuclear test.
North Korea, however, is also pushing for something Seoul hasn’t agreed to: a discussion on Wednesday of how to jointly commemorate past inter-Korean statements, including the anniversary on Saturday of a statement settled during a landmark 2000 summit between liberal President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the current ruler’s late father.
This matters to North Korea because the June 15 statement from the 2000 summit, along with another 2007 leaders’ summit, include both important symbolic nods to future reconciliation and also economic cooperation agreements that would benefit the North financially.
Those commitments faded after Park’s conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, took office in 2008. His insistence that large-scale government aid be linked to North Korea making progress on past commitments to abandon its nuclear ambitions drew a furious reaction from Pyongyang. Relations deteriorated further in 2010 after a North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island killed four people, and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan killed 46 sailors.
A Seoul-led international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for the Cheonan attack, and South Korea has demanded an apology from the North before it will allow any exchanges. Pyongyang denies any role in the sinking, and the two sides will presumably bring those irreconcilable positions with them on Wednesday.
Since her presidential campaign, Park has mixed a tough line with policies of engagement, aid and reconciliation with the North — a recognition of the frustration many South Koreans felt about Lee’s hard-line policies.
Analyst Park Hyeong-jung said North Korea wants the past statements on the agenda to forge a “relationship that is to their advantage. They want to hold the present South Korean administration accountable for the declarations of past administrations.” “This is the first time in a long time both sides are meeting,” said Park, a senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “Rather than a breakthrough, this week’s talks are only the beginning.” Both Koreas have also agreed to discuss resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain resort and the reunion of separated families, officials said.
There’s little chance that the narrowly defined talks will tackle the crucial question of pushing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear bombs. North Korea has said it will never give them up, though the US and other countries say it must if it is to rebuild its relationship with the rest of the world.
While still sceptical of North Korea’s intentions, the US has welcomed South Korea’s efforts to reduce tensions with the North. But the State Department is stressing that Pyongyang must take concrete steps toward denuclearisation if it wants to foster ties with Washington.
“We’ve long made clear that we are open to improved relations with North Korea if it is willing to make clear actions to live up to its international obligations and commitments,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.
It’s still unclear who will represent each side in Wednesday’s inter-Korean talks. Seoul said it will send a senior-level official responsible for North Korea-related issues while Pyongyang said it would send a senior-level government official, without elabourating. A minister-level summit between the Koreas has not happened since 2007.
Dialogue at any level marks a positive sign in the countries’ recent history, which has seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches. The armistice ending the three-year Korean War that was signed 60 years ago next month hasn’t been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically at war.
Analysts express wariness about North Korea’s intentions, with some seeing the interest in dialogue as part of a pattern where Pyongyang follows aggressive rhetoric and provocations with diplomatic efforts to trade an easing of tension for outside concessions.
After UN sanctions were strengthened following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, threatened nuclear war and missile strikes against Seoul and Washington, pulled its workers from the jointly run factory park at the North Korean border town of Kaesong and vowed to ramp up production of nuclear bomb fuel. Seoul withdrew its last personnel from Kaesong in May.
Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said he is optimistic that the Koreas can resume work at Kaesong and reunions for separated families. But he said a quick breakthrough is unlikely because North Korea’s gesture for closer ties runs counter to South Korea’s demand for apologies.
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press