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Failure of inter-Korea talks highlights longstanding mistrust


s.koreaThe mutual recriminations after the failure of North and South Korea’s latest talks underline the depth of distrust and animosity that has plagued cross-border relations for decades.

The rare high-level talks ended Saturday night after two days of marathon negotiations produced no agreement on any issues — not even an agreement on whether to meet again.

The talks between vice ministers, with a mandate to address a broad but unspecified range of inter-Korean issues, were the first of their type for nearly two years.

While no substantial breakthrough had been expected, hopes for some tangible progress in stalled cooperation projects were dashed as the meeting became deadlocked from the very beginning over the agenda.

The cash-strapped North wanted the South to resume lucrative tours to its scenic Mount Kumgang resort, which Seoul suspended in 2008 after a female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

But Seoul refused to talk about the issue and sought instead to focus on ways to hold another round of family reunions for those separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Pyongyang tried to make the resumption of the tours a precondition for discussions on reunions, according to Seoul’s chief delegate Hwang Boo-Gi.

The North’s state agency KCNA later accused Seoul of refusing to discuss “core issues” and resorting to “unreasonable assertion” that hobbled the talks.

Previous efforts to establish a regular dialogue have often quickly faltered after an initial meeting — a reflection of the deep mistrust between two countries that have remained technically at war since their conflict six decades ago.

Since both sides refuse to budge on key issues, a breakthrough in relations will be hard to achieve in coming months, said Cheong Seong-Chang of the South’s Sejong Institute think-tank.

“I doubt that the Koreas will ever reach any agreement for a while even if there are to be talks any time soon,” he said.

For the impoverished and isolated North, a reunion of hundreds of cross-border families is a highly taxing project economically and politically, Cheong said, urging Seoul to take a more flexible stance over the pressing humanitarian issue.

Millions of family members were separated by the war that sealed the division of the Korean peninsula. Most have died without ever seeing or hearing from relatives on the other side of the border.

Pyongyang has rejected repeated requests from Seoul to make the reunions — the last of which took place in October — more frequent and of longer duration.

Yang Moo-Jin, professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the South’s refusal to discuss resumption of the tour programme — which was widely believed before the meeting to have been on the agenda — appeared to have left Pyongyang “deeply mistrustful” of Seoul.

“It looks like the talks failed to establish a much-needed basic level of trust between the two Koreas,” he said.

The North’s leader Kim Jong-Un is expected to celebrate in May the first conference of the ruling Workers’ Party since 1980.

Analysts said restarting the tour programmes would have been a useful propaganda victory for him as well as providing a source of much-needed hard currency.

But after the latest negotiations fell apart, Pyongyang would likely focus on preparations for the conference rather than dialogue, Yang said, adding an upcoming South Korean-US joint army exercise would also mar the prospects for fresh talks.

Seoul and its ally Washington are set to stage in March the annual Key Resolve exercise, which the North has for years slammed as a preparation for invasion.

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