Behind Breakdown of Korea Talks, a History of Suspicions
By Choe Sang-Hun, NY Times, June 12, 2013
SEOUL, South Korea—Plans to hold what would have been the highest government dialogue between North and South Korea in years—and hopes for a rapprochement on the divided Korean Peninsula—collapsed over what appeared to be a minor technical issue: who should lead their delegations to the planned talks.
But in the decades-old confrontation between the two Koreas, even a matter of protocol can escalate into a highly sensitive struggle over pride. Their latest tussle over the proper ranks of their chief delegates was in part an extension of a struggle that has persisted for decades.
"We must think of the pride of our people," Prime Minister Chung Hong-won of South Korea told the National Assembly on Wednesday, explaining what was at stake in the dispute with North Korea.
During border talks decades ago, both sides took the competition over protocol and appearances to the extreme, with North Korean military officers secretly adding inches to the legs of their chairs so they would look taller than their counterparts from South Korea and the United States across the table.
In those cold war-era meetings, the sides usually exchanged invectives and retorts. But they also sometimes persisted in silence—for over 11 hours in one session in 1969—challenging the other side to speak first.
In the best-known contest of pride on the divided peninsula, North and South Korea once engaged in a race over which country could raise its national flag higher over the heavily fortified border. That battle was eventually settled with the North beating the South; today, the North’s flagpole stands 500 feet tall, beating the rival South staff by roughly 200 feet.
The latest tussle of pride began when the two Koreas agreed this week to hold government-to-government dialogue in Seoul, starting on Wednesday, but could not come to terms on who should be their chief delegates.
South Korea said it would send its vice unification minister, Kim Nam-sik, to the meeting as its chief delegate. North Korea said that Mr. Kim was not senior enough and demanded that the South send Mr. Kim’s supervisor, the Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, as chief delegate. The South retorted that the proposed chief North Korean delegate—Kang Ji-yong, director of the secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea—was already below Mr. Kim “in status.”
Last-minute negotiations for a compromise had failed, with both Koreas complaining of a bruised ego. Then, on the eve of the talks, North Korea pulled out of the planned meeting in Seoul, accusing the South of “an insult,” South Korean officials said.
It appeared unlikely that the two Koreas would try to resume negotiations any time soon.