PUSAN, South Korea, July 13 (Reuters) South Korea wanted to talk about the North Korean missile tests that have infuriated the globe's most powerful countries. The North wanted to discuss the virtues of visiting the tomb of Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
Such were the parallel universes of the two countries when they talked past each other in their first high-level discussions since North Korea test-fired seven missiles on July 5.
The talks broke down today in South Korea's port city of Pusan, ending a day ahead of schedule.
The shortest ministerial talks on record between the two countries had strange and strained moments, reflecting how the missile test has changed perceptions on the Korean peninsula.
Form accounts for a great deal on both sides of the divided peninsula. South Korea sent a message early with an opening banquet consisting of much simpler fare than previous meals and served in an austere hall under harsh fluorescent lighting.
''There were just fewer items on the table,'' a South Korean official said, comparing the meal to previous dinners served to visiting North Koreans. ''I was hungry afterwards.'' South Korea said before the talks the missile test had strained ties between the neighbours, which had been warming thanks to deals reached at previous meetings.
The South deleted a customary sightseeing excursion from the schedule, cutting out photo opportunities where delegates from the two Koreas could be seen as friends enjoying their common Korean culture.
SACRED AND SCENIC The South said before and during Wednesday's meeting its focus was on the missile test and North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea largely skirted those issues.
The North's chief delegate Kwon Ho-ung asked instead for the South ''to allow unrestricted visits to holy and scenic spots symbolic of each other's system''.
The North usually defines these places as those steeped in its communist ideology, such as Kim Il-sung's mausoleum.
North Korea also asked for a massive package of humanitarian food and industrial aid. It demanded the South stop joint military drills with the United States beginning next year, saying it was willing to protect South Korea with its 1.2 million strong military.
That provoked an unusually biting reply from South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok.
''Who in the South asked you to protect our safety?'' Lee told Kwon on Tuesday, according to a South Korean official. ''It would help our safety for the North not to fire missiles or develop a nuclear programme,'' Lee said.
The South said the North could also forget about any more aid until it returns to separate talks on its nuclear weapons programme among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The talks have been stalled since November.
The meeting ended with the North Koreans abruptly leaving for Pyongyang and blaming the South for pursuing ''impure goals with misguided ideas''.
REUTERS SHB PM1600