Reuters) - Military talks between the rival Koreas have “collapsed,” a unification ministry official in Seoul said on Wednesday, dealing a setback to efforts to restart international aid-for-disarmament talks.
Tensions have eased on the divided peninsula since the start of the year, with both sides calling for dialogue, raising hopes the neighbours could rebuild relations shattered over the past two years by a series of deadly attacks and failed nuclear talks.
Colonels from the two Koreas, still technically at war since their 1950-53 civil conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, talked for two days but failed to get past the first hurdle of the preliminary meeting -- setting the agenda for a senior discussions.
“The talks have collapsed; they haven’t even agreed on a date for their next meeting,” the official told Reuters, referring to the first meeting since the North’s attack on the southern island of Yeonpyeong in November, which killed four people and raised the threat of possible all-out war.
Yonhap news agency quoted South Korean Defence Ministry Kim Min-seok as saying the North’s representatives had “unilaterally walked out of a meeting room”.
While the failed military talks underline deep divisions, analysts said they were hardly surprised and that any talks would follow a stop-start pattern, possibly taking weeks, even months.
“I thought it would take some time due to a gap in views of the both,” said Park Syung-je, an expert at the Asia Strategy Institute. “Next time ahead of talks, South Korea should check if North Korea truly wants them.”
Tensions rose on the divided peninsula earlier in the year when 46 South Korean sailors were killed in an attack on a naval vessel. North Korea, which denies responsibility for that attack, also revealed major advances in its nuclear programme in November.
Beijing and Washington had set inter-Korean dialogue as a prerequisite to restart six-party talks which offer the North aid and diplomatic recognition in return for disabling its nuclear arms programme. Tokyo and Moscow are the other six-party members.
The North has said it wants to return to the broader negotiations, but Seoul and Washington have questioned its sincerity about denuclearising -- pointing to its revelations about a uranium-enrichment programme.
“Without having the bilateral talks between the two Koreas, holding six-party talks also looks unclear now,” said Kim Seung-hwan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The North quit the six-way talks in 2009, declaring the process dead, in protest against U.N. sanctions for conducting nuclear and missile tests.
The North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong, the first attack against civilians on South Korean soil since the Korean War, set off a wave of war-like rhetoric that worried financial markets in a region home to one-sixth of the world’s economy.
Under pressure from their main allies, the United States and China, the neighbours have stopped their combative language and reopened a hotline at their border.
And the two sides showed some signs of cooperation on Wednesday, with Seoul sending a telegram to Pyongyang saying it was ready to discuss humanitarian issues.