Korea Meeting Is Troubled From the Start

By John M. Glionna
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

SEOUL, South Korea -- The two Koreas were all set to hold a face-to-face sit-down Tuesday, their first since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008.

Delegates from both sides were on hand, but the meeting stalled when there was a dispute over the venue.

Finally, nearly 12 hours behind schedule, the two sides met late Tuesday for just 22 minutes, with the North refusing to discuss the release of a detained South Korean worker.

The meeting initially was scheduled to be held at a jointly operated factory complex just north of the demilitarized zone. That's where Seoul says North Korean soldiers detained the worker last month.

The breakdown started soon after a delegation of nine representatives from Seoul crossed the border about 8:45 a.m. and headed toward the Kaesong industrial complex, where North Korean employees work at scores of South Korean-owned factories.

Seoul wanted to discuss the worker's return, but apparently Pyongyang officials were seeking to discuss the future of the joint venture.

The venue dispute came when North Korean officials insisted that the conclave take place at their administrative office in Kaesong, not the management office that oversees the joint venture, according to Yonhap news service.

It was unclear Tuesday evening where the meeting ultimately took place.

One analyst said the South Korean government might have misinterpreted a message from the North over the weekend as meaning that officials from the reclusive communist regime were ready to meet.

"South Korea thinks, `Well, let's meet them. We'll not only hear what North Korea will say to us, we can tell them what we have in our mind,'" said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"But North Korea goes: `What are you talking about? This is just a notification, not a negotiation.' It's a chi fight between the two," Yang said, using a term that refers to the flow of energy.

Officials from Seoul's Unification Ministry said Tuesday that the two sides had disagreed "about the process" for the talks.The apparent miscommunication evinced the strained atmosphere caused by the North's recent threat to restart its shuttered nuclear program.

Tensions between the two neighbors peaked this month when North Korea launched a rocket, saying it was putting a satellite into orbit. The United States and its allies said no satellite reached space, and many observers said the mission most likely was a test of a long-range ballistic missile.

After Japan, the United States and South Korea all sought penalties for Pyongyang through the United Nations Security Council, an angry North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the six-party talks intended to bring about the North's nuclear disarmament.

The Pyongyang government later expelled international monitors from the country's main nuclear facility.

North Korea also has warned that the South's possible participation in the Proliferation Security Initiativewould be regarded as a "declaration of war." The initiative, proposed by the Bush administration in 2003, partly is meant to prevent North Korea from selling nuclear weapons.

Seoul has demanded the release of the worker who officials say has been held since March 30, when he allegedly criticized the secretive regime and encouraged North Koreans to defect.

"It is completely hard to understand that North Korea rejected a talk on the matter of the South Korean worker," Seoul's Unification Ministry said after the meeting Tuesday.

North Korea also is holding two American journalists who it says were spying on the reclusive regime. The two were taken into custody March 17 near the Chinese border while filming a documentary about North Korean defectors.

^Ju-min Park of the Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.

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