SEOUL, South Korea -- North and South Korea called off talks one day before they were supposed to begin, South Korean officials said Tuesday, after the two sides failed to agree on who should attend.
The planned dialogue had sparked hopes for a thaw in relations on the Korean Peninsula, but the 11th-hour cancellation -- a result of North Korea's withdrawal -- highlighted how Seoul and Pyongyang can be kept apart by differences not just profound, but small.
The two-day meeting had been scheduled to start today at Seoul's Grand Hilton hotel, in what would have been the first government talks between the two Koreas in six years.
At an evening news conference Tuesday, a South Korea Ministry of Unification spokesman kept open the possibility that talks could occur Thursday and urged the North to participate.
The spokesman, Kim Hyung-suk, said the North was "responsible" for backing out, having rejected Seoul's proposed delegation.
But he also described a convoluted series of proposals and counterproposals, unfolding over the past two days, in which each side managed to offend the other.
Initially, South Korea had hoped for a summit between ministers -- Ryoo Kihl-jae leading the South, and Kim Yang Gon leading the North. But the North refused, thinking Mr. Kim too powerful to be paired with Mr. Ryoo. Some analysts in Seoul say they understand the North's reasoning. Mr. Ryoo, the unification minister, is responsible for the South's policy toward the North. But Mr. Kim, head of the United Front Department in the ruling Workers' Party, oversees a wider area of foreign policy.
Tuesday afternoon, the two countries exchanged lists of proposed negotiators -- five on each side. The South's was headed by Mr. Ryoo's lieutenant, Vice Unification Minister Kim Nam-sik.
The North then threatened to call off the meeting unless Mr. Ryoo was included, the Unification Ministry spokesman said.
The first sign of conflict about the talks surfaced Sunday, during a session among North and South Korean lower-level officials that was supposed to set the agenda and participants for the midweek talks. The session lasted 17 hours and ended without any agreement.
If the North and South cannot soon revive their talks, it will deal a blow to the strategy of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who wants to use small economic cooperation projects to build trust between the neighbors.