North Korea reverts to type in diplomacy | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 14.06.2013
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North Korea reverts to type in diplomacy

North Korea has disturbed the peace of recent weeks by laying the blame for the cancellation of planned talks with South Korea on Seoul. Is Pyongyang using its tried-and-tested approach to diplomacy?

North Korea has fiercely criticized South Korea for the failure of high-level discussions that were scheduled to take place this week and were meant to further ease tensions across the world's most heavily fortified border. Instead, the two sides appear to be slipping back to the dark days of late winter and spring, when Pyongyang was routinely threatening to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire" and there was genuine international alarm that the North might escalate further from the nuclear and ballistic missile tests that it had already conducted.

The decision by China to support stiff sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong Un appeared to trigger concern in Pyongyang that it was genuinely isolated and, after some further face-saving warnings, the North surprised the rest of the world in early June by proposing the first direct talks with the South for six years.

Preliminary discussions at the border village of Panmunjom on Sunday appeared to bode well for two days of more substantive talks in Seoul from Wednesday, but the agreement quickly unraveled.

North Korea demanded that the South send Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae to the talks but that its delegation would be Kang Ji-yong, a director at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

Propaganda coup

An October 2012 file photo shows buildings in an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong. (Photo: Kyodo)

North Korea withdrew its workers from Kaesong

Sensing the North would claim a propaganda coup if the South Korean minister with overall responsibility for the reunification of the country sat down with a mere department chief, Seoul declined to be drawn and offered a diplomat of equal rank to Kang.

Pyongyang responded furiously, accusing the government in Seoul of "creating an obstacle" by refusing to send a senior delegate to the talks.

"This fully proves that the south side had no intent to hold dialogue from the beginning and that it only sought to create an obstacle to the talks, delay and torpedo them after reluctantly taking part in the talks, far from solving issues at the negotiating table," a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement.

The North dropped a heavy hint that it had no desire for more talks in the immediate future.

"The recent impolite and immoral provocative behavior of the puppet group made us think once again whether it will be possible either to properly discuss matters or improve the inter-Korean relations, even if the talks between authorities are opened in the future," the committee said, according to reports in North Korean state media.

With the return to rhetoric, analysts believe that North Korea was never really interested in substantive talks to narrow the two sides' differences.

Testing South Korean leader

"North Korea is testing the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, because she is new in the position and a woman," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, told DW.

"It's like a game of geopolitical chicken and the North keeps pushing and pushing in the hope that Ms. Park will compromise," he said. "But I think they have miscalculated; she is under a great deal of pressure from the United States to stand firm against the threats and she would also lose a great deal of support from the South Korean people if she caved in."

The future of the Kaesong industrial complex was one of the key issues on the agenda for the cancelled talks. South Korea was expected to request that the North apologize for withdrawing its workforce from the jointly-operated plant just north of the border and essentially forcing the South Korean businessmen who had set up operations in the facility to abandon their investments.

As well as an apology, Seoul was expected to demand compensation for the firms that had lost their businesses and a commitment that the North would never take the same drastic measures again in the future.

The suggestion that the South was preparing to make demands of Pyongyang sent the North Korean regime's unofficial spokesman in Japan into a renewed fury.

'Apologize and compensate'

"The South must apologize to us and compensate us," Kim Myong-chol, executive director of The Centre for North Korea-US Peace, told DW. "There is no other way. We do not need these talks, the South needs them. And we are not in a hurry."

Professor Shigemura believes the North has reverted to the type of diplomacy that has served it so well in the past. A provocative move, such as a missile launch, is roundly condemned by the international community. Pyongyang has been defiant for several months before offering to negotiate in return for concessions.

And no sooner are those concessions forthcoming than North Korea carries out the next provocation and claims it is the victim.

The big difference this time around, Professor Shigemura says, is that the international community will no longer put up with the petulance and provocations.

"The US is now following what it terms the 'collapse strategy,'" he said. "When President Park met President Barack Obama recently, he would not express support for trust-building measures with the North because they want the regime to fail.

"China is following America's lead on this and while it does not want a collapse of Kim's regime as it would pose a security threat on its border - not to mention a massive influx of refugees - they do want a new regime in North Korea," he said.

"And that is a significant change."

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