Talks between North and South Korea ended in deadlock and then collapse on Wednesday as North Korean negotiators abruptly walked out of a meeting, exposing the continuing deep divisions between the two rivals.
Hopes had been raised that the preliminary military-to-military contacts could pave the way for the resumption of a fuller dialogue just three months after North Korea bombarded a South Korean island, killing four people and taking the peninsula to the brink of war.
But the talks foundered on South Korean demands that the North must apologise for the shelling incident last November and the torpedoing of a South Korea warship last March – an act for which the regime of Kim Jong-il denies responsibility.
The North's negotiators crossed the border back to their country immediately after leaving the meeting, a South Korea government spokesman said.
"They even failed to discuss when to meet again," he added, "Under the current situation, we can say the talks have collapsed."
Analysts say that North Korea entered the talks under pressure from China, but also because it is desperately in need of the food and fuel aid which has been cut off by the US, Japan and South Korea after it conducted a second nuclear test in 2009.
Officially, the two sides were scheduled to agree on a future date for higher-level talks, but the South said they had been unable to agree even if these should be at the military chief-of-staff or between respective vice-ministers.
Earlier in the day hopes of progress were raised when the South confirmed it had agreed to discuss the re-starting of a Red Cross-sponsored family reunions for thousands of Koreans separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Some 80,000 elderly South Koreans are currently on a waiting list for a chance for a reunion with relatives who were left living on the Northern side of the border when the armistice was signed at the end of the war.
However that gesture could bridge the yawning gap that separates the two, as South Korea continues to demand that it will not enter substantive negotiations until the North ceases aggression, apologises and shows it is sincere about nuclear disarmament.
"We have also been stating that it is absolutely necessary to hold government-to-government talks to verify the North's sincerity about denuclearisation," a government spokeswoman reported earlier in the day.
In a signal of its intent to stand its ground, South Korea also says it is determined to refer North Korea's secret uranium enrichment programme to the UN Security Council, an act Pyongyang says will hamper efforts to re-establish relations.
"This [referral] would only end up obstructing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and escalating the prevailing confrontation," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
A recent report to the UN sanctions committee on North Korea warned that Pyongyang has at least one secret uranium enrichment facility. The North, which is also embarked on a ballistic missile programme, claims that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes only.