North and South Korea begin first direct talks in years
Posted January 8, 2018 9:17 p.m. EST
Updated January 8, 2018 9:36 p.m. EST
SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea began their first direct talks in more than two years on Tuesday, starting a dialogue that raised hopes for a thaw after months of escalating tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The meeting between Cho Myoung-gyon, the South Korean Cabinet minister in charge of relations with the North, and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Kwon, opened at 10 a.m. Korea time Tuesday in the village of Panmunjom, according to pool reports from the South Korean news media, taking place in the middle of the world’s most dangerous and fortified border.
In the talks, South Korean officials are expected to find ways to accommodate the offer by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. But they also want to explore whether North Korea is interested in talks with the United States to ease tensions over its nuclear arms programs.
In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim proposed holding a dialogue with South Korea to discuss his country’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games. In the same speech, he also claimed to have acquired a nuclear deterrent, including intercontinental ballistic missiles he said he could unleash on the United States with his “nuclear button.”
Some analysts said Kim was hoping to use his country’s self-proclaimed status as a nuclear weapons state as leverage to win concessions from Washington, particularly the easing of increasingly crippling sanctions. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said that Kim’s decision to start dialogue with South Korea was a sign that their campaign to isolate the North was working.
The talks at Panmunjom provide an opportunity to gauge whether North Korea is willing to moderate its behavior after a year of provocative nuclear and missile tests that have raised fears of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
But the initial focus will be on the Olympics.
To get the North Koreans to participate, South Korean officials must nail down the travel route, lodging and other logistics of a North Korean Olympic delegation. They are also expected to propose that the two delegations march together behind a “unified Korea” flag during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, a symbolic gesture for a peninsula that was divided into the Soviet-backed North and the pro-American South upon liberation from Japan’s colonial rule at the end of World War II.
If the North competes in Pyeongchang, it will be the country’s first participation in the Winter Games in eight years. The country has competed in every Summer Olympics since 1972, except the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul, both of which it boycotted.
In fact, if the North Koreans do come to the South for the Olympics, it would be a historic development in inter-Korean sports exchanges.
The North had not only shunned the Seoul Olympics but also tried to disrupt them after talks on co-hosting them fell apart. Its agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air passenger plane in 1987 in a terrorist attack that the South said was aimed at sabotaging the 1988 Olympics. All 115 people on board were killed.
In 2002, as South Korea co-hosted the World Cup soccer tournament with Japan, the North provoked a bloody naval skirmish with the South.
North Korea has traditionally sent only a small delegation to the Winter Games and has never won a gold medal at them.
The International Olympic Committee is eager for the North to return, promising to help cover its athletes’ expenses in Pyeongchang.
Kim, the young North Korean leader, who studied in Switzerland as a teenager, has shown keen interest in winter sports and has overseen the building of large ski resorts. (Kim is also a basketball fan, and after he became the North’s leader, he invited the former NBA star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang.)
But Kim’s government has also accused the United Nations of hampering its sports development, citing recent Security Council sanctions that included recreational sports equipment in a list of luxury items banned for the country.
North Korea’s top Olympic representative, Chang Ung, is expected to discuss with IOC officials in Switzerland what sports its athletes could compete in at the Pyeongchang Games.
North Korea missed an Oct. 31 deadline to accept invitations from the IOC and South Korea to join the games. But the IOC has said it remained flexible, willing to consider wild-card entries for North Korean athletes even though they have not qualified for the Olympics.
In recent decades, North Korea has alternated between provocation and dialogue, and it remained unclear whether Kim’s Olympic overture signaled a softening. For the South Koreans, who have been rattled by the exchange of threats of war between North Korea and the United States in the past year, the border talks provide a welcome reprieve, although some analysts warned that it might be short-lived.
South Korea hopes that the Olympic talks at Panmunjom will lead to other moves to ease tensions, like temporary reunions of elderly people in both Koreas who have never met their cross-border siblings since the 1950-53 Korean War.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is a strong proponent of dialogue with North Korea, even as his country’s U.S. allies say military action remains an option to halt the North’s nuclear brinkmanship.
Moon’s government says North Korea will be less likely to conduct a nuclear or missile test during the Olympics if its athletes are competing in the South. It hopes to use such a lull in the nuclear standoff to create a momentum for negotiations between North Korea and the United States. But the talks at Panmunjom could turn complicated if North Korea demands rewards for its Olympic participation.
While proposing to send an Olympic delegation, Kim called on South Korea to stop joint annual military exercises with the United States. Moon called Trump last week, and both leaders agreed to postpone any military drills until after the games.