South Korea welcomed on Tuesday an offer of talks from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics, and suggested the two sides meet as early as next week.
The offer of talks could lead to a temporary easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula. But experts reacted cautiously to the initiative, warning that North Korea was most likely borrowing from a well-worn playbook, hoping to win relief from sanctions and buy time to improve its nuclear program without offering any real concessions.
In a January 1st speech on Monday, Kim said he wanted to ease tensions with the South, was willing to send a delegation to the Olympics and suggested the two sides meet to discuss the idea.
Seoul’s Unification Minister responded in a televised news conference on Tuesday with an offer to meet as soon as Jan. 9 at the shared border village of Panmunjom to discuss cooperation over the Olympics and how to improve overall ties, news agencies reported. Talks, if they take place, would be the first in more than two years.
Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said the offer of talks had been discussed with the United States, but that a decision had not yet been reached on whether to postpone South Korea’s next round of joint military drills with the United States until after the Olympics.
North Korea sees those drills as preparations for war, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said last month he had asked the U.S. military to postpone the joint exercises until after the Olympics.
Moon favors dialogue to reduce tensions with Pyongyang and sees the Olympics as a “groundbreaking chance” to improve ties and achieve peace. His government is also extremely keen to see the Games pass off successfully.
But Kim had stonewalled his efforts – until this week, when he finally said he wanted to improve the “frozen” relations between the two Koreas and would “open our doors to anyone” from the South who sincerely wishes national concord and unity.
“We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success,” he said, according to the North’s official KCNA news agency. “From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures; with regard to this matter, the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon.”
President Donald Trump said sanctions and other pressure “are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea,” citing the defection of two soldiers from the North across the Demilitarized Zone into the South in recent weeks. “Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time,” he tweeted, referring to Kim. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”
South Korea’s Moon welcomed Kim’s address, and responded by asking his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics. Unification Minister Cho wasted no time in trying to pin down a date.
“We look forward to candidly discussing interests from both sides face-to-face with North Korea along with the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics,” Cho said. “I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form.”
Talks could offer an opportunity to dial down tensions on the Korean peninsula, after a year when war has emerged as a real risk. China’s foreign ministry welcomed what it called “positive steps” by both sides and hoped they would “take advantage of this opportunity and make concrete efforts in improving bilateral ties, and realize denuclearization of the peninsula,” according to spokesman Geng Shuang.
But Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia under President Barack Obama and is now senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Kim’s aim is to “divide and conquer.”
“Kim wants to unwind sanctions and clearly sees President Moon’s angst over the Olympics as the weak link in the allied chain,” he said. “Diplomacy is always the preferred option and this opening should be explored carefully. But it would be naive to expect North Korea to negotiate in good faith or consider itself bound by new agreements given its past record.”
Russel said the North Korean leader’s behavior fitted into a familiar pattern, with the threat of the “nuclear button” on Kim’s desk, combined with the “enticement” of talks.
“Pyongyang’s pattern is to raise tensions to a fever pitch, dangle a conciliatory offer, collect any and all concessions, then rinse and repeat,” he said. “The key to disrupting this pattern and compelling North Korea into credible negotiations over its nuclear program – which is the goal of the sanctions – is maintaining unity between the U.S. and South Korea, as well as Japan, China and Russia.”