SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea dismantled the meeting table, pulled down the placards and rolled up the red carpet. Its intended guest, North Korea, has stopped answering the phone.
The rivals' much-anticipated meeting, which had been set for Wednesday, collapsed before it even began. But while the last-minute cancellation over a protocol dispute shows the Koreas' deep mutual mistrust, they may have more reasons than not to eventually unpack the meeting gear and get back to negotiations.
New South Korean President Park Geun-hye is under pressure to make good on her campaign promises to reverse a deterioration of ties under her hard-line predecessor. A high-level meeting would validate her attempt to combine a tough line against provocations with commitments to provide aid and steady calls for dialogue.
North Korea is interested in reviving the two economic projects that were to be the main focus of the meetings, both as an emblem of reconciliation and as a source of foreign investment and hard cash. Pyongyang may also be feeling a pinch from its only major ally, China, which has clamped down on cross-border trade and financial dealings in a show of displeasure over a recent spike in tensions.
"Even though a cooling-off period at this point is inevitable, it is still possible for a different level of the South-North talks to take place as time passes," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies of Dongguk University in Seoul.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang wouldn't answer Seoul's calls on a communications line at their border that was restored ahead of preliminary negotiations for the failed meeting. But Ryoo Kihl-jae, South Korea's Unification Minister and Park's point man on North Korea, likened the talks' failure to "labor pains" in the creation of new relations.
North Korea has not issued its own statement about the canceled talks. In an editorial Wednesday, the North's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, called for a better mood for dialogue but made no reference to the scrapped meeting.
The talks were meant to focus on reviving South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain resort, and on restoring operations at a factory park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong. The complex, run with North Korean workers and South Korean managers and capital, was responsible for nearly $2 billion a year in cross-border trade until it shut down this spring during high tensions.
The South Korean businessmen who were forced to abandon their operations expressed dismay over the aborted talks.
"I feel miserable," said Kang Chang-beom, who runs a women's apparel company that has dormant assembly lines at Kaesong.
"The Kaesong complex is dying and our machines are getting rustier as they argue" over protocol, he said. He was not just speaking figuratively; the rainy season starts next week.
The hope had been that the narrowly defined economic talks would lead to the start of a new relationship. Inter-Korean relations have been marred in recent months by a rocket launch, a nuclear test and threats of nuclear war by the North, followed by South Korean vows of counterstrikes.
But the talks collapsed over a dispute over who would participate in them. North Korea said it wasn't sending its officials to Seoul for the meeting because the South scrapped its plan to send Ryoo, according to Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry. South Korea decided to send the vice unification minister instead because the North was not sending the official Seoul considers to be Ryoo's equivalent.
"Koreans are very aware of issues of hierarchy and juniors and seniors," said Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. "The larger picture is that North Korea is wary of giving too much recognition to the South."
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea studies professor at Korea University in the South, said calling off the talks at the last minute shows how high the level of mistrust is between the governments. Even if the two sides begin talks, it's not clear how much progress can be made, he said.
North Korea's interest in talks followed its longstanding cycle of alternating between provocative behavior and attempts to seek dialogue in what analysts say are efforts to win outside concessions.
Animosity has been high on the Korean Peninsula since U.N. sanctions were strengthened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February. For weeks Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, unleashed a torrent of threats, including vows of nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington.
South Korean activists held dueling rallies Wednesday in Seoul over the collapsed talks.
"Bickering over the rank of the envoys shows a lack of South Korean resolve to carry dialogue to the next level," Yun Hee-sook of Korea Youth Solidarity, a leftist student organization, said at a protest urging Seoul to restart talks with Pyongyang.
Later Wednesday, more than 100 right-wing protesters, including
Korean War veterans, chanted anti-Pyongyang slogans as they burned an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and ripped a North Korean flag with a box-cutter.
"We gathered here today to praise Park Geun-hye's decision," said Chu Sun-hee, one of the organizers of the protest.
AP writers Elizabeth Shim and Foster Klug contributed to this report.