North Korea Accepts Call for Talks

South Korean people watch a TV news broadcast reporting on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year's address, at a station in Seoul, South Korea, 01 January 2018. (Photo by JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

North Korea has accepted an offer to attend high-level talks next week, South Korean officials have said. The meeting, on 9 January, will focus on finding a way for North Korean athletes to attend the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in February.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said this week that sending a delegation to the Games would be “a good opportunity to show the unity of the people”. The meeting is expected to be held at Panmunjom, on the border. These will be the first high-level talks both Koreas have had since December 2015. It is not yet clear who will be attending.

South Korea: Historic chance

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has previously said he sees the Winter Olympics as a “groundbreaking chance” to improve relations between the Koreas, two countries still technically at war.

Kim opened the way for talks with South Korea in a New Year’s Day speech in which he called for reduced tensions and flagged the North’s possible participation in the big sports event.

Pyongyang’s leader, however, remained steadfast on the issue of nuclear weapons, saying the North would mass produce nuclear missiles for operational deployment and again warned he would launch a nuclear strike if his country was threatened.

US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in announced that annual large-scale military drills would now take place after the Olympics.

 The North sees these drills as preparations for invasion and just cause for its weapons programs that it conducts in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

Trump had earlier called the proposed inter-Korean talks a good thing and that he would send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Olympics, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Cautious optimism in the region

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States and its two key Asia allies, Japan and South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang welcomed North and South Korea taking positive steps to improve ties, and said the postponement of the military exercises was “without doubt a good thing”. China’s Commerce Ministry said it would limit exports of crude oil, refined oil products, steel and other metals to North Korea, in line with tough new sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera sounded a note of caution about the proposed talks.

“I think what is important is to maintain a firm defense posture,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

High point for diplomacy

The first inter-Korean talks since 2015 are due to take place next week, but the optimism surrounding them could be fleeting, writes Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat for the BBC. Even at this moment of optimism, we must ask if we have already reached the high point of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula in 2018, he adds.

Should the Panmunjom talks succeed, we may see a geopolitically uneventful Winter Olympics, but North Korea may return to testing ballistic missiles as early as late March, as the US-South Korea exercises begin. For diplomacy to succeed in 2018, the US and South Korea will have to extend this brief window of opportunity. Unfortunately, Seoul and Washington will remain divided on the correct path ahead, Panda concludes.

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