The inter-Korean working-level military talks broke down after no progress Wednesday, as the two sides failed to narrow their differences over the agenda for the possible high-level meeting, officials at the Ministry of National Defense said.
The two Koreas also failed to set a date for another round of the talks, they said.
The talks were held for the second consecutive day at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom after the two sides failed to agree on Tuesday over the agenda and other issues concerning the opening of the high-level meeting.
“North Korean officials walked unilaterally out of the room and crossed the military demarcation line (into the North). So, the talks broke up without setting a date for another round of talks,” ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok told reporters.
The preliminary meeting was aimed at setting the agenda, venue, date and level of representatives for the high-level dialogue. Col. Moon Sang-gyun, director of the North Korea policy division at the MND, and his North Korean counterpart Col. Ri Son-kwon represented each side.
The major sticking point was the agenda for the high-level talks.
The South maintained that the two deadly attacks last year by the North ― the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November ― should be dealt with at the high-level talks, and that other issues can be discussed afterwards.
However, the North suggested that a “comprehensive” agenda including measures to mitigate military tensions on the peninsula be covered at the high-level talks.
When it made the proposal on Jan. 20 for holding preliminary talks, the North said that during the high-level talks it wanted to express its views on the two attacks, and discuss ways to address tensions on the peninsula.
Besides the issues over the agenda, the two sides also struggled to reach an agreement over the level of the representatives for the high-level talks.
The South suggested that the talks be attended by defense ministers or top military officials of the two Koreas while the North suggested the talks be attended by vice minister-level officials.
“Our side claimed that the high-level talks should be attended by officials who can take responsibility (for what happens during the high-level dialogue), but the North suggested that the talks be represented by vice minister-level officials,” said a military official.
“But they have 12 vice minister-level officials, whom we don’t see as figures who can take responsibility.”
Should the two sides agree to hold a minister-level meeting, the North would send Kim Yong-chun, minister of the North’s People’s Armed Forces, or Ri Yong-ho, chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff.
Seoul officials believe it may be difficult for Kim to attend the bilateral meeting due to his age and reportedly deteriorating health.
Seoul has demanded that North Korea take “responsible measures” for the two deadly attacks that together killed 50 South Koreans including two civilians.
However, the North appears unlikely to accept responsibility for the two incidents.
Although the Seoul-led multinational investigation team concluded last May that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the 1,200-ton Cheonan in the West Sea, the North has persistently denied its role, calling the investigation results “fabrications.”
The North also argues that the artillery attack on the civilian-inhabited island was a justifiable reaction to initial aggression by the South, which at the time was conducting a live-fire exercise near the western sea border that the North does not recognize.
The working-level talks were the first since the ones held in September at Panmunjeom. They came as the North has repeatedly been making overtures for inter-Korean dialogue, though possibly with ulterior motives.
Experts here believe that through the North’s “offensive for dialogue” the North seeks to be seen as talking the initiative to improve inter-Korean relations that have plunged to new lows over the two attacks.
They also pointed out that the North has been seeking to create a mood conducive to the resumption of the stalled multilateral denuclearization talks, which could help it ease its economic travails and solidify the ongoing hereditary power succession process.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)