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South Korea calling, but North pretends that nobody is home

North Korea's refusal to take South Korea's phone calls has dashed hopes for proposed peace talks.

Lee Jin-man/AP
South Korean workers dismantle a signboard at the venue for the Koreas' first high-level meeting at Grand Hilton Hotel in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. The Koreas' first high-level talks in years were scrapped a day before they were to begin Wednesday because of a dispute about the rank of officials who would lead their delegations.

North Korea refused to take calls from Seoul Wednesday, a day after proposed cabinet-level talks between the two Koreas fell apart over a dispute about the rank of officials who would lead their delegations.

Reuters reports that South Korea received no response from two calls, sent at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. local time, to the North via a Red Cross hotline reestablished just last week after Pyongyang shut it down earlier this year. The lack of response is most likely a result of this week's collapsed talks, reports the BBC.

Representatives for the two Koreas had met on Monday to arrange high-level discussions planned for today, in what would have been the first such meeting since 2007. But, reports The New York Times, the two sides broke off their preliminary discussions on Tuesday after the two sides split on what officials would attend.

South Korea said it would send its vice unification minister, Kim Nam-shik, 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 accusing each other of hurting their ego. Then, on the eve of the talks, North Korea pulled out of the planned Seoul meeting, accusing the South of “an insult,” South Korean officials said.

Any hopes of the two Koreas soon reducing tension and getting back to business as usual were dashed.

In recent months, North Korea has been using particularly heated rhetoric toward the South and the US, and it staged several weapons tests this spring. It has also refused to return to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program -- despite UN sanctions supported even by its sole ally, China. Gi-Wook Shin, a professor at Stanford University, told The Christian Science Monitor that the North's willingness to entertain even preliminary talks with the South could be a result of pressure from China, whose president, Xi Jinping, recently met with President Barack Obama.

“What we should pay attention to is the timing of all this, as the agreement [to hold meetings] came just before the Obama-Xi summit. With the North's dialogue gesture, China could urge the US to talk to the North. In this sense, North Korea's agreement to talks can be seen as targeting China and the US as much as South Korea,” says Stanford University professor Gi-Wook Shin.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said in a parliamentary session today that it was a matter of "the pride of the South Korean people" that the North and South meet on equal terms, writes Yonhap News. "Dialogue can be accepted by each other when two sides are on the same level. Talks made by a unilateral push would not have sincerity," he said.

In an editorial, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo argued that "It is common courtesy and global protocol to match the ranks of participants in government talks," and that "North Korea has been spoiled" by the South's previous willingness to fudge the difference in ranks between diplomats.

In previous talks that were billed as "ministerial," the South Korean delegation was always helmed by a minister, as the name suggests, whereas North Korea repeatedly got away with sending some underling, evidently to demonstrate just how little store it set by these meetings. Now its bluff has been called, it sulks, suggesting that it was never sincere about the negotiations in the first place. ...

Seoul did the right thing by refusing to blindly accept all the North's conditions for the sake of talks. It was a necessary decision on the road to putting inter-Korean relations on a more sensible footing. South Korea should not shut its doors on North Korea, but it needs to set firm conditions for constructive dialogue.

But Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Dongguk University, told the Associated Press that the dispute is in part due to disagreement over how officials within the two Koreas' different political systems match up. Regardless, he said, it will likely take some time before new discussions are held. “The two sides are offended by each other now. The relations may again undergo a cooling-off period before negotiations for further talks resume,” he said.

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