North Korea abruptly cancels military talks with U.N.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s military abruptly canceled a rare meeting today with the American-led U.N. Command that had been arranged to discuss the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang.

Military officers from North Korea and the U.N. Command were to meet this morning at the Korean border village of Panmunjom to discuss the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. It would have been the first such meeting since the sinking, which sharply raised tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.

The North requested a delay in the talks for “administrative reasons,” the U.N. Command said in a statement.

In Washington, D.C., Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said there’s a chance the colonel-level administrative meeting could be held Thursday instead.

“They’ve indicated that they’d like to move it to Thursday; but … this is an unpredictable regime and so I wouldn’t put any money on that,” Whitman told Pentagon reporters today.

An international investigation in May concluded that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the 1,200-ton Cheonan near the tense Korean sea border in late March. Pyongyang flatly denies it was responsible and has warned any punishment would trigger war.

The U.N. Command, which oversees an armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, separately investigated whether the sinking violated the truce, though the findings have not been disclosed.

Late last month, the command proposed military talks with North Korea to review its findings and initiate dialogue.

The North first rejected the offer, criticizing the U.S. for allegedly trying to meddle in inter-Korean affairs under the name of the U.N. But it reversed its position last week and proposed working-level talks at Panmunjom to prepare for higher-level talks by general officers on the sinking.

The North Korean military’s request means it feels it wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the meeting, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean studies. “They may have yet to get Kim Jong Il’s approval for their strategy on the talks,” he said, referring to the country’s leader.

Yang, who expects a meeting to eventually take place, said it will serve a “symbolic” purpose as a venue where North Korea and the U.S. can engage in dialogue and foster an atmosphere conducive to resuming international disarmament talks on the North’s nuclear program.

North Korea and the U.N. Command launched general-level talks in 1998 as a measure to lessen tension between the sides. If a new round is realized, they would be the 17th of their kind, according to the U.N. command.

The U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in an armistice that has never been replaced with a permanent peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council on Friday approved a statement that condemned the sinking but stopped short of directly blaming North Korea.

Also today, Pyongyang repeated a regular accusation that the U.S. and South Korea are plotting to attack the North, citing ongoing U.S.-led multilateral military exercises off Hawaii.

The biennial Rim of the Pacific drills, or RIMPAC, involve warships from 14 nations, including South Korea, Japan and Australia. The maneuvers, which began last month and run until Aug. 1, including finding submarines, clearing mines and firing missiles.

“These actions are dangerous military provocations … and reckless war maneuvers” with North Korea as their main target, the country’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea has argued it was forced to develop nuclear bombs due to U.S. threats. Washington has repeatedly said it has no intention of attacking the country.

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