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Asia

'A further setback for Korean ties'

Relations between North and South Korea suffered another blow after official talks were recently called off over protocol differences. But experts believe the 11th-hour cancelation won't lead to a stop of negotiations.

The high-level dialogue was set to be the first after a nearly six-year hiatus. The neighbors had intended to discuss the normalization of joint economic projects, including an industrial park near their border, but the talks were scrapped after North Korea reportedly objected to the diplomatic rank of the South's chief delegate.

The cancelation has put a further strain on the already troubled relations between the two countries, says Hanns Günther Hilpert, Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in a DW interview. The two countries have technically been in a state of war since the Korean War, from 1950-1953.

DW: What surprised you the most, the fact that North Korea offered to talk to the South or that the talks were cancelled on such short notice?

Hanns Günther Hilpert: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had already relented to international pressure when he decided to send his special envoy for talks with the Chinese government. So a move to further ease tensions with the South was to be expected. It took me by surprise, however, that the talks were called off at the last minute, since basically, both parties want a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Hanns Günther Hilpert, Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Photo:Hanns Günther Hilpert)

Hilpert believes there is still a chance for talks to resume

The reason for the cancelation was allegedly a dispute over the rank of the negotiators involved. Pyongyang appears to have felt provoked by Seoul's announcement that it would send it's vice unification minister as chief delegate. How could this be?

South Korea had previously proposed sending its unification minister, but then retracted when the North downgraded its own envoy. Such rank issues are important, since they are meant as a trial of strength in pre-negotiations. It seems leaders in Pyongyang assumed they could not relent any further in the matter and hence decided to call off the talks.

Distrust between the two neighbors seems to run so deep that even the smallest provocation can have consequences. Do you think it was a smart move by Seoul to select this person as chief delegate?

On the one hand, it was an unwise move because South Korea has a keen interest in getting along with the North and re-establishing negotiations. On the other hand, it was prudent to led Pyongyang know that South Korean leadership is not willing to give into all of the North's demands.

What are the consequences of the cancelation?

This is definitely a setback for bilateral relations. However, I still believe there is a possibility for talks to resume between North Korea and the United States.

How likely is this?

I believe this is very likely since, in principle, North Korea's leadership has already signaled its willingness to talk. It seems it has also listened to China's position that dialogue must come before aggression and that all parties, including Beijing, have one common goal: North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

The interview was conducted by DW editor Esther Felden.