N. Korea's familiar disappearing act

N. Korea's familiar disappearing act
A North Korean village is seen near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea.

The abrupt cancellation of planned talks between North and South Korea underlines the huge challenges facing any "trust-building" process on the divided peninsula.

Right from the outset, the agreement to hold what would have been the first high-level dialogue in six years had looked vulnerable - dogged by disagreement over the agenda and other issues.

In the end, it was a matter of protocol - the North felt insulted by the South's nomination of a vice-minister as its chief delegate - that smothered the initiative before it had even drawn breath.

While little was expected of the talks, they had been seen as a positive step forward, given that the two Koreas had spent most of March and April on full military alert, trading threats of nuclear war and counter-strikes.

As of yesterday morning, however, the North wouldn't even deign to pick up when the South called on a newly-restored inter- government hotline.

From an outside perspective, the North's behaviour may seem gratuitously churlish, but some analysts say it reflects a deep-rooted insecurity that baulks at offering the merest hint of a concession.

"The weaker North Korea is, the more afraid it is to be seen as weak," said Dr Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

"This makes it ultra-sensitive to issues of ritual and protocol, especially when dealing with the wealthier South," Prof Lankov said.

There had been significant scepticism about Pyongyang's real intentions when it came up with its dialogue offer last week.

The proposal seemed to follow the traditional North Korean playbook - manufacture a crisis, ratchet up tensions to dangerous levels and then offer talks to extract concessions.

But it's a worn strategy that ignored a growing international consensus, which has critically won the limited support of the North's main ally China, to stop pandering to Pyongyang.

Recent United States-South Korea and US-China summits, and an upcoming China-South Korea summit have fuelled the impression of a united front forming against an increasingly-isolated North Korea.

"With all this summitry going on, I think North Korea was looking to relieve the pressure a bit by demonstrating some willingness to talk," said Dr Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Dr Lee Jung Hoon, director of the Centre for American Studies at Seoul's Yonsei University, said the North's proposal had largely been a "masquerade" from the outset.

"The basic idea was to break the momentum created by the summits going on..., and try and make people believe the North might be changing its ways," Dr Lee said.

"I don't think anyone was really going to buy that," he added.

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