A DEEP distrust between the two Koreas, one capitalist and the other communist, has left their latest high-level talks with few results and many promises for later progress.
The eighth meeting between their prime ministers, held in the North Korean capital Pyongyang Sept. 15-17, did manage to set up joint commissions to tackle possible cooperation on political, military, and economic matters.
And a few small steps, such as the opening of a military hotline within 50 days, does allow both sides to point to some progress.
But "many of the big questions have been left behind," comments a South Korean diplomat who followed the talks in Pyongyang. Both sides have linked specific demands to progress on almost all issues.
South Korea has sought family reunions on the divided peninsula and a decrease in military tension, while the North wants aid for its ailing economy.
"Both sides only made more wishes," the diplomat says.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Won Shik admitted as much in the talks by saying that the new commissions were the "second-best solution," since both sides could not agree on the South's main demand for mutual inspections of nuclear facilities.
The South had hopes of a softer line by North Korea at these talks due to its increasing diplomatic isolation and a cutoff of barter aid from China and Russia.
But while Pyongyang has already agreed to inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, it again rejected the South's demand for inter-Korea inspections that would open up military bases and other places for examination.
The United States and South Korea suspect the North of building nuclear weapons. North Korean Prime Minister Yon Hyong Muk said that the South's demand for inspections was "nonsense."
In a concession, the South agreed to set up the commissions and dropped its previous linkage to nuclear inspections.
One possible reason for the North's harder line may have been a need to appear strong after China, its only major ally, opened formal ties with South Korea last month. The move by Beijing could have strengthened hard-liners in the Pyongyang regime.
North Korean Premier Yon did not bring up China's move at the talks, but may have made an oblique reference when he said that his country would stick to "our own style of socialism, undisturbed in the least."
Two other possible reasons for the North's new toughness may be the South's purported breakup of a major North Korean spy ring this month and an expected change of South Korean leaders by February.
An election in December will determine the successor to lame-duck South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, who has tried to wring out as many concessions as possible from the North before he leaves office.
He has one more chance for a breakthrough when the next prime ministerial talks take place in Seoul Dec. 21-24. The dates are significant because they come a few days after the election results are known but before Mr. Roh leaves office.
The North also notched up its demands against Japan, which has refused aid to Pyongyang until it agrees to nuclear inspections.
The North proposed to the South that they jointly pursue action against Japan's forced prostitution of Korean women during its World War II occupation. Many observers see this move as an attempt to embarrass the South in not taking a tougher stand against Japan.
Despite Pyongyang's tough stance, Roh may allow an increase in trade and a few exploratory investment missions to the North.
"We want to to keep some positive attitude by the North and to keep them relaxed," the South Korean official says.
The North is in dire need of hard currency to pay for imports of oil to keep its factories and farm tractors operating.