North Korea’s vanishing act ahead of talks follows well-worn script


The abrupt cancellation of planned talks between North and South Korea underlines the huge challenges facing any “trust-building” process on the divided peninsula, 60 years after the Korean War.

Right from the outset, the agreement to hold what would have been the first high-level dialogue in 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 before it had even drawn breath.

While little was expected of the talks, they 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 counterstrikes.

As of Wednesday afternoon, however, Pyongyang wouldn’t even deign to pick up when Seoul called on a newly restored intergovernment hotline.

“We made an opening call at 9 a.m., but the North did not answer,” the South’s Unification Ministry said. Seoul tried again in the afternoon, to no avail.

From an outside perspective, North Korea’s behavior may seem gratuitously churlish, but some analysts say it reflects a deep-rooted insecurity that balks at offering the slightest hint of concession.

“The weaker North Korea is, the more afraid it is to be seen as weak,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North and professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.”This makes it ultrasensitive to issues of ritual and protocol, especially when dealing with the wealthier South,” Lankov said.

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

“These were important hard currency earners for Pyongyang and they wanted them back up and running,” Lankov said. “But however badly it needs the cash, the North leadership will never allow itself to be seen as making a political concession — even one that seems trivial.”

There had been significant skepticism about Pyongyang’s real intentions when it delivered its dialogue offer last week.

The proposal seemed to follow the traditional North Korean playbook — manufacture a crisis, ratchet up tensions to dangerous levels and then offer talks to extract concessions.

But it’s a worn strategy that ignored a growing international consensus, which has critically won the limited support of the North’s main ally, China, to stop pandering to Pyongyang.

Recent U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-China summits, as well as an upcoming China-South Korea summit, have fueled the impression of a united front forming against an increasingly isolated North.

“With all this summitry going on, 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. “It could see the international opinion building up against it, and wanted to buy some time.

“I was a little surprised by the abrupt cancellation, because I thought they might drag it out a little longer, but then the North doesn’t really do compromise.”

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February with a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, has since pushed a “trust-building” policy aimed at incremental improvements in relations.

As such, she had welcomed the talks as a useful first step, but the resulting stalemate over the status of the chief delegates demonstrated that Seoul was also wary of early concessions.

The two Koreas have technically remained at war for the past six decades because the 1950-53 Korean War concluded with an armistice, which will enter its 60th year next month, rather than a peace treaty.

Lee Jung-hoon, director of the Center for American Studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said North Korea’s proposal had largely been a “masquerade” from the outset.

“The basic idea was to break the momentum created by the summits going on around them, and try and make people believe the North might be changing its ways,” Lee said.

“I don’t think anyone was really going to buy that,” he added.