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Mystery, Mistrust Mark North Korea Outreach Failure

  • Brian Padden

North Korean senior diplomat Kim Ki Nam, right, and others see off the Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus of North Korea leaving the station in Pyongyang, North Korea in Pyongyang, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

North Korean senior diplomat Kim Ki Nam, right, and others see off the Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus of North Korea leaving the station in Pyongyang, North Korea in Pyongyang, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

Two North Korean diplomatic initiatives to reach out to its neighbors ended abruptly this weekend when inter-Korean talks concluded with no agreements and an all-female band performance in China was suddenly cancelled.

For North Korea watchers it is a reminder that engaging with the isolated, secretive authoritarian regime, even on seemingly non-political issues, can be painfully difficult.

“One thing we know is that it is not easy to deal with North Korea. It’s not easy to sit down with them. It’s painful. You get embarrassed. You think you have one thing, it turns out you have another. It’s very hard,” said Professor John Delury, a North Korea analyst with Yonsei University in Seoul.

Cancelled performance

It remains a mystery why the all-female Moranbong Band, along with North Korea's State Merited Chorus, cancelled just a few hours before they were scheduled to perform Saturday at Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts.

The pop music band, whose members are allegedly chosen by Kim Jong Un himself, shows a more modern and fashionable side to North Korea than is typically seen in traditional celebrations and military parades.

Members of the Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus of North Korea walk to get on a train at the station in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

Members of the Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus of North Korea walk to get on a train at the station in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.

China's official Xinhua news agency said the performance was called off due to "communication issues at the working level."

North Korea analysts offered a range of reasons to explain the band’s sudden return to Pyongyang.

Yang Moo-jin, with the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul speculated in the Guardian newspaper that North Korean anger over media reports romantically linking one of the band members to Kim Jong Un could be responsible.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency suggested a dispute over protocol could be fault, perhaps because China decided to send a lower ranking delegation to the concert, possibly to protest Kim's claim last week that the North possesses a hydrogen bomb.

It is unclear whether the mysterious band cancellation reflects a serious setback for Sino-North Korean ties that had been improving in recent months with high level visits and expanded economic trade and development.

There has been a rift between these two traditional allies since 2013 when China agreed to support international sanctions against North Korea for conducting its third nuclear test.

North-South talks

Inter-Korean relations also hit an impasse over the weekend.

North and South Korea failed to reach any agreements after holding two days of high-level talks to discuss possible cooperation on modest, non-political projects like instituting regular reunions for families that were separated by the division of the Korean peninsula, and restarting cross border tourism.

The two sides even failed to agree to keep open channels of communication by setting a date for a future meeting.

On Monday, South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman Jeong Joon-hee urged North Korea to remain engaged.

"There is no change in our basic position that our government will establish a basis for peaceful reunification by developing inter-Korean relations and having talks with North Korea with an open mind," he said.​

FILE - Hwang Boogi, left, South Korea's vice minister of unification and the head negotiator for high-level talks with North Korea, talks as his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su, right, listens during their recent meeting.

FILE - Hwang Boogi, left, South Korea's vice minister of unification and the head negotiator for high-level talks with North Korea, talks as his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su, right, listens during their recent meeting.

In August both sides agreed to pursue high level talks and cultural exchanges as part of a settlement to resolve a cross border confrontation that threatened to escalate into war.

During last weekend’s talks, Seoul’s Unification Ministry Spokesman said South Korea refused Pyongyang’s demand that cross-border tours at the North’s Mount Kumgang be agreed to before discussing family reunions or any other issue.

The Mount Kumgang tours were suspended in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers.

During the talks Seoul pressed for assurances for tourist safety in North Korea if cross border tourism were to resume.

The two sides also reportedly argued over the North’s nuclear weapons program, with the South saying it is an obstacle to better relations.

Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean state run website said on Sunday that South Korea had spoiled the mood for the talks by being slanderous and defamatory.

North Korea analyst Ahn Chan-il with the World Institute for North Korea Studies says the band cancellation in China and the failed inter-Korea talks indicate uncertainty in the Pyongyang leadership and insecurity on the part of those representing North Korea at the international level.

“I think the Kim Jong Un regime is not fully ready to make accomplishments through talks with South Korea and it is same for China,” he said.

Inter-Korean tensions had been decreasing in the last few months as Pyongyang cooperated with Seoul in September to host separated families reunions and had refrained from following through on threats to launch a long-range rocket or a nuclear test.

But after the contentious weekend, Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense said Monday it is expecting North Korea to instigate some provocation and has called for an increased military readiness posture.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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