South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been looking for a way to engage with the North since his election last May, and the 2018 Winter Olympics seem to have provided that opportunity.
North Korean officials spoke with their southern counterparts on Tuesday in a rare face-to-face meeting that ended with the North’s promise to participate in the Winter Olympics, which will take place in South Korea in February. The meeting was the first of its kind in more than two years. It took place in Panmunjom, a “truce village” located just steps from the North-South border.
The talks were an important step forward in easing tensions between the two countries, but South Korea was unable to engage the North about its nuclear weapons program. There mere suggestion of the topic was met with anger.
“All our cutting-edge weapons…are not targeting our Korean brothers, China, or Russia – but the United States,” stated North Korean representative Ri Son Kwon. “If we begin talking about these issues, then today’s good results might be reduced to nothing.”
South Korean diplomat Chun Hae-sung told reporters the two countries had agreed to reopen a key military channel that had been shut off in 2016. This is the second channel to be reopened this month. Both parties committed to future talks in order to “improve inter-Korean relations” and “ease the current military tension.”
South Korea has suggested that athletes from both countries march together in the Opening Ceremony to present an appearance of unity and that family members separated by the DMZ be allowed to see each other for February’s Lunar New Year.
Seoul has portrayed Tuesday’s meeting as a significant step forward in bilateral relations, but it is unclear whether the North will pursue the opportunity with any sincerity.
“The most important spirit of the inter-Korean talks is mutual respect,” said South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon.
South Korea has agreed to suspend certain sanctions in order to allow North Korean athletes to participate in the Olympics and has even managed to persuade the US to postpone annual military exercises until the completion of the Games in March. Further niceties threaten to alienate the Trump Administration, which has been pushing a campaign of “maximum pressure” in an effort to denuclearize the Kim regime.
Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo all welcomed the meeting as a positive step, but some believe North Korea’s cooperation with the South is nothing more than an effort to disrupt the South’s alliance with the US.
In his January 1st address, Kim said he has a “nuclear button” to launch missiles at any target in the US.