PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Canceled Talks

by | June 14th, 2013 | 10:04 am

In an earlier post, we contained our cynicism and saw the North’s offer of bilateral talks—however opportunistically timed to the Obama-Xi summit—as a good sign. The offer fell well short of the Chinese demands during the Choe Ryung Hae visit that North Korea do something serious with respect to the nuclear issue. But at least it was something.

It is now clear that the North’s offer had a much more complicated design that included stirring up domestic political divisions over policy toward the North, most notably on the ultimately frivolous question of whether to hold “celebrations” of the 1972 and 2000 joint declarations. The protocol issues at the center of the collapse of the talks have also been poorly understood. South Korea’s decision to downgrade its delegation was not simply pique over a diplomatic slight. The South’s objections centered on whether the DPRK would send someone to Seoul who had the authority to negotiate on the complex substantive issues that surround the re-opening of Kaesong and Kumgang. The short answer to that question appeared to be “no.” While we are sorry that the talks did not materialize, the Park administration’s decision to send a lower-level head of delegation is completely understandable.

Let’s review the bidding. The talks unfolded in three steps. The surprising June 6 offer by the North Koreans not only focused on substance—Kumgang, Kaesong, divided families, joint celebrations, wider cooperation—but also process; the North Koreans promised to leave the time, place and type of talks up to Seoul. The ROK government immediately responded they would like to hold inter-ministerial talks, a format which evolved during the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years when a total of 21 such talks were held.

The next two phases were the set of talks on the talks held on June 9 and the changes in delegations that led to the North’s ultimate cancellation of the talks scheduled for June 12-13. The preliminary round of talks was headed by Chun Hae-sung, head of the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s (MOU) policy bureau, and Kim Song-hye, an official at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK). After a long day of wrangling, the two parties failed to issue a joint statement, and a careful read of the two statements issued—reproduced below—shows why. There was one interesting concession by the South: the talks were specifically called “Inter-Governmental Talks,” conceding the reality that the two countries are for all practical purposes just that.

But two issues of contention stand out from the dueling statements. First, the North Koreans claimed that there had been agreement on discussing celebrations on the 1972 and 2000 joint statements, as well as other forms of economic cooperation. As the South Korean statement shows, this was simply false; the South wanted a narrower agenda, in line with Park’s incremental approach to trust-building.

Second, the North Korean statement—and the initial offer–suggested that the talks would be “ministerial,” although the Korean language version of the KCNA story was more elusive on this point (see below). South Korea originally had proposed sending Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae to the talks in the hopes that the North would send Kim Yang-gon, the head of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party. Their ranks are not exactly equivalent; one holds a cabinet position, the other a party position in the Secretariat. However Kim Yang-gon has been in charge of South Korean affairs since 2007. Although he would appear to be the MOU’s equal, it could be argued that his rank is effectively higher given his proximity to the top leadership; his official ranking from two appearances in 2013 was 16th and 19th, and in 2012 he was 6th in our informal ranking based on frequency of appearances with Kim Jong Un and 23rd in 2013 to date.

More importantly, Kim appeared to have the ability to speak for the top leadership, something the South Koreans clearly sought (its statement noted that “the chief of the South delegation will be a government official who can negotiate, solve and take responsibility for inter-Korean matters.”). In 2007, Kim was the lead figure on the North Korean side in negotiating the Roh Moo Hyun-Kim Jong-il summit. In 2009, he met with President Lee Myung-bak’s envoy in Singapore to explore a third inter-Korean summit; he was also on the 2009 delegation to Seoul to pay respects following the death of Kim Dae Jung and actually met with LMB. And on the down side, it was Kim who officially ordered the withdrawal of North Korean workers from Kaesong, the action that effectively shut the complex.

The North Koreans refused to discuss the names of the members and head of delegation until the day before the talks were to start. When the two sides finally exchanged their lists at 1PM on the 11th, the North discovered that its decision to send Kang Ji-yong as head of delegation did not go down well. Kang was identified as a “director” at the secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) but as the DailyNK pointed out, one of his responsibilities was to make the joint celebrations happen. There is even some question as to whether the head of CPRK would have been the MOU’s equal, but there can be little question that a director in the body wasn’t. South Korea quickly removed the Minister of Unification from the delegation and replaced him with Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-shik. The North then pulled the plug on the talks, literally failing to pick up the phone on the hotline that had been reopened on the 6th.

The standard mutual recriminations followed. According to Yonhap, North Korea claimed that previous DPRK heads of delegation during “ministerial” talks had in fact held the position of Deputy Director of the CPRK secretariat including Chun Keum Jin, Kim Ryung Sung and Kwon Ho Woong. But of course, the lack of meaningful progress  during those sunshine-era talks could be a justification for holding out for higher-ranking delegations.

The focus on joint celebrations of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration was not just a political move.  It also had a more substantive purpose; a return to the halcyon days of substantial and unrequited aid from the South. The effort to widen the agenda had similar objectives, since a resumption of civilian contact across the border and cross-border business projects would effectively ease the sanctions put in place following the sinking of the Cheonan. The Kumgang proposal also had a poison pill in it; family reunions at Kumgang required a prior “normalization” of the tourist facility. Put differently, family visits had to be paid for in advance.

All of this landed in a South Korean political landscape that remains polarized on the issue. The South Korean Committee for the Joint
Implementation of the June 15 Summit
Declaration—an organization arguing for a resumption of the sunshine approach–had argued from the beginning that the government
should accept the North’s proposal for a joint event, a proposal that Park firmly rejected by arguing that government-to-government talks had to come first. The administration had similarly rejected efforts by the companies to negotiate the reopening of the complex.

When the names were exchanged on the 11th, the Park administration faced a difficult choice. Would it set protocol aside and take a chance on talks headed by a low-level message carrier? Or would it stand on principle and require the North Koreans not only to abide by protocol but to signal their seriousness? A host of other options sought to split the difference, from constructing a table listing officials of equivalent rank to raising the stakes by turning the ministerial talks into

prime minister-level talks. There have also been some domestic opponents who tried to portray the failure of the talks as the Park administration’s doing.

But that appears to have been precisely North Korea’s hope. It doesn’t look to us like the offer of talks was ever really serious.

The North and South Korean Statements Following the Preliminary Talks

Working-level Contact for Talks Between Authorities of North And South Held

Korean Central News Agency


PYONGYANG – Working-level contact for the talks between authorities of the north and the south of Korea was made at Panmunjom Sunday and Monday.

At the contact both sides discussed working issues arising in opening the talks between authorities of the north and the south and adopted a press release.

According to the press release, it was decided to open the talks in Seoul on June 12 to run through June 13, 2013 and call them the talks between authorities of the north and the south [note: the English translation on the KCNA website used the term ministerial talks.”].

It was agreed to discuss immediate and urgent matters concerning the inter-Korean relations including the issue of normalizing the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, the issue of resuming the tour of Mt. Kumgang, the issue of reunion of separated families and their relatives and other humanitarian issues, the issue of jointly marking the June 15 and July 4 anniversaries and the issue of promoting non-governmental visits, contacts and cooperation projects.

It was decided that each delegation to the talks would comprise five delegates, the delegation of the north side would be headed by minister-level authorities and the delegation of the north side would travel to the south overland on the west coast.

It was decided to discuss additional working matters through Panmunjom hotline.

Spokesperson Kim Hyung-seok announces a statement on the working-level meetings held at Panmunjeom from June 9th to 10th Posted on Monday, June 10, 2013


South and North Korea held working-level contacts at Panmunjeom from June 9th to 10th, 2013.

1.     South and North Korea agreed to hold Inter-Korean Governmental Talks in Seoul from June 12th to 13th, 2013.

2.     Both sides agreed to name the talks the ‘Inter-Korean Governmental Talks.’

3.     At the Inter-Korean Governmental Talks, the two sides agreed to discuss urgent and pending matters of normalizing the Gaeseong Industrial Complex(GIC), resuming tours to Mt. Geumgang, and resolving humanitarian issues such as reunions for the separated families.

4.     Each delegation will comprise five representatives respectively and the chief of the South delegation will be a government official who can negotiate, solve and take responsibility for inter-Korean matters.

5.     The North’s visiting delegation will take the land route via the Gyeongui Line.

6.     South and North Korea agreed to negotiate additional practical issues through liaison officers at Panmunjeom.