South, North Korea talks called off after row over delegates

SEOUL Tue Jun 11, 2013 12:18pm EDT

1 of 2. Workers set up a sign at the venue for an inter-Korean governments meeting at a hotel in Seoul June 11, 2013. Korean characters read,'South and North Korean Governments Meeting' and 'Seoul'.

Credit: Reuters/Park Dong-ju/Yonhap

SEOUL (Reuters) - Planned high-level talks between South and North Korean after a six-year hiatus and threats of war were scrapped on Tuesday, South Korean government officials said, over a seemingly minor disagreement over the diplomatic ranks of chief delegates.

The talks were due to be held on Wednesday. North Korea's earlier offer to hold them came as a surprise after weeks of threats to attack the South and the United States in March and April.

The talks offer came as the North was apparently seeking to reopen lucrative business deals and the South was trying to mend ties with its unpredictable and heavily armed neighbor.

Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry, told reporters that North Korea had told South Korea that the South's choice for its chief delegate for the talks, the deputy unification minister, was not appropriate.

North Korea had said the South's choice was a "grave provocation", Kim said.

For its part, South Korea had hoped that the North 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 the North 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 South Korean ministry spokesman said.

The spokesman said the North's decision on its delegate was "abnormal" and the person chosen was not fit to be a genuine representative of North Korea's leadership.

"Our government regrets North Korea's position," the South Korean spokesman said.

The disagreement over the negotiators was reminiscent of seemingly minor details that in previous meetings became sticking points that derailed or delayed progress.

It was not clear if North Korea was withdrawing its offer of talks altogether and returning to hostile tactics but South Korea said it remained open for dialogue when the North was ready.

SEEKING DIALOGUE

North Korea may also have been prodded into the offer to hold talks by China, its sole major diplomatic ally and economic backer. The North's overture came as U.S. President Barack Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping for talks in California.

The talks would have been their first high-level meeting between the two Koreas in nearly six years. The North is seeking to reopen business links and the South is trying to mend ties with its unpredictable and heavily armed neighbor.

South Korea had hoped the talks would lead to the reopening of the Kaesong industrial zone and a suspended tours program to Mount Kumgang, a scenic area near the rivals' border, just inside North Korea.

The North closed its money-spinning Kaesong venture with South Korean companies, that earned $90 million a year in foreign exchange, in April amid spiraling 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 apologize.

In 2010, the North was blamed for killing 50 South Koreans with the sinking of a naval ship and the shelling of a South Korean island after the then South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, cut aid as North Korea pushed ahead with its nuclear program.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is the daughter of the former military ruler Park Chung-hee, and whose mother was assassinated by a North Korea-backed assailant, came to office in February pledging to rebuild trust with the North.

As she prepared to take office, the North carried out its third nuclear weapons test and then mounted a two-month long verbal offensive, threatening both Park and South Korea.

While seeking to reopen dialogue, Park had said she should not give in to unreasonable tactics by North Korea.

(Editing by Robert Birsel and Jack Kim)