The Day Somebody Picked Up the Phone

On January 3, 2018, the phone rang — and somebody answered.

The call was made by South Korea to North Korea on the inter-Korean hotline. Seoul had been calling twice every day for the last two years, but there was no answer. Pyongyang had cut off all communications in February 2016 after Seoul closed the joint industrial complex at Kaesong.

But this time somebody answered, and within days representatives from the two Koreas were meeting in person and talking about peaceful cooperation. It was agreed that Pyongyang will participate in the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in the South next month and will hold talks with Seoul at some point soon, ostensibly to ease military tensions.

The global watchword for this surprising development is: Caution. Diplomats, military officials and analysts are warning that unrealistic expectations should not be raised; that too much should not be hoped for. And this is one of those times that the experts are correct.

Indeed, you don’t have to be an expert on the Far East to grasp this. Anyone familiar with the disheartening start-stop-start-stop history of attempts to reconcile the Koreas in the past several decades will counsel the same.

The world should not confound this Pyeongchang diplomacy with the ping-pong diplomacy that presaged the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China in the 1970s. That was a carefully orchestrated process that developed through secret talks in which a rapprochement had already been agreed. The outcome of talks between North and South Korea, on the other hand, is far from settled, .

North Korea’s decision to take part in the games in Pyeongchang is not without precedent; the two Koreas have made joint entrances at nine major sporting events since 2000. Still, the details of this latest effort are yet to be worked out, and there is no guarantee that even this modest show of amity won’t go awry. Any incident small or large — a dispute over a referee’s call or an impromptu protest demonstration — could trigger the indignation of the nuclear north.

And even if all goes swimmingly at Pyeongchang, the paramount issue — that is, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons — remains unresolved. Of that, there is a guarantee. The North has already said plainly that its nuclear program is not now a topic for discussion.

What is more likely to be discussed is resumption of reunions for families divided by the Korean War. The last reunions were held in 2015, and of the 130,000 people who have applied for reunions since the system began in 1988, only about 60,000 are alive today.

Then there is the bread-and-butter — or rice and kimchi — of what is often described as “confidence-building” measures: technical assistance for the North’s stunted economy, restarting military-to-military meetings to prevent inflammatory incidents; cultural exchanges to promote a friendly atmosphere.

Chad O’Carroll, managing director of a research and consultancy firm called the Korea Risk Group, noted that the first bilateral meeting this week went on without the usual wrangling over whether to hold them on the North or South side of the Joint Security Area.

“It definitely seems like something is in the air and we’ll see what that leads to,” he said.

Which brings us to the matter of what led to that significant phone call on January 3.

“For the North Koreans, the motivation to take part in these talks is undoubtedly due to the pressure that is building up on the country,” O’Carroll said.

“Policy planners in North Korea are going to really start to struggle in the medium to long term in terms of being able to plan effectively and grow the economy with the amount of economic and diplomatic isolation there is right now. There is one small potential relief valve for Pyongyang, which is South Korea,” he said.

Sanctions, yes. But with the potential to be somewhat alleviated.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in pointed to another factor that has generated renewed hope for peace on the peninsula: President Donald Trump. Mr. Moon praised Mr. Trump personally, saying he “made a huge contribution to make inter-Korean talks happen [and] I’d like to express my gratitude.”

It’s an exceptionally strong vote of confidence for a president under relentless attack from his critics. Not a question of credit-grabbing or arguable analysis; a central player in the process went out of his way to give Mr. Trump the credit he believes he deserves.

Mr. Moon also issued a statement addressed to those who say that Pyongyang’s policy is to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington (a wedge that already appeared earlier this year when President Trump accused President Moon of seeking “appeasement.”):

“The U.S. and South Korea are in very close cooperation,” Mr. Moon said Wednesday, adding that they’re in synch on policy, “especially on North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations.”

“There is no difference in our opinions with the U.S., which is why the U.S. is fully supporting talks, expressing their wish this can help resolve the North Korea nuclear issue,” he added.

Whether this will lead to any sort of breakthrough, or is simply another gambit by the North Koreans to buy time as they continue to build their nuclear arsenal, remains to be seen.