SEOUL – South Korea Tuesday proposed holding high-level talks with Pyongyang on Jan. 9, after the North’s leader Kim Jong Un called for a breakthrough in relations and said Pyongyang might attend the Winter Olympics.
Kim used his annual New Year’s address to underscore Pyongyang’s claim that it has developed a weapons deterrent and warn that he had a “nuclear button” on hand.
But his call for “urgent” talks to ensure the success of the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month — and improve overall inter-Korean relations — represented a tactical shift for a regime that has previously shunned dialogue offers from Seoul.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in quickly welcomed the move, and said he will coordinate with the international community as he pursues peace talks.
South Korea’s unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon said Seoul’s proposal for dialogue next week reiterated “our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place in any form.”
“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties,” he said at a news conference.
The two Koreas, which have been separated by a tense demilitarized zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, last held high-level talks in 2015.
Moon has long favored engagement to defuse tension with the North, but has indicated that improvements in inter-Korean ties must go hand in hand with steps toward denuclearization. Moon proposed Red Cross and military talks last year, but his requests were not answered by Pyongyang.
Kim’s comments were also the first indication of North Korea’s willingness to participate in the Winter Games, which run from Feb. 9 to 25. Moon called them a “positive response” to Seoul’s hope that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace.”
The main Winter Olympic venues are just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with the North and the build-up to the event has been overshadowed by surging tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.
In his speech Monday, Kim said the Olympics could provide a reason for officials from the neighbors “to meet in the near future.”
Seoul and games organizers are keen for the North to take part. North Korea’s past participation in sporting events in the South has largely depended on the political and military situation, though they did send a full team to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, near Seoul.
Two North Korean athletes — pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik — qualified for the games but Pyongyang’s Olympic Committee missed an Oct. 30 deadline to confirm to the International Skating Union that they would participate. The pair could still be invited to compete by the International Olympic Committee.
At the end of last month, members of Moon’s ruling party met secretly in China with North Korean officials to explore the possibility of participation in the Winter Olympics, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported, without saying where it got the information from.
“It’s about time that the North and the South sit down and seriously discuss how to improve inter-Korean relations by ourselves and dramatically open up,” Kim said in his speech on Monday.
He also made one long-standing demand during his speech: that South Korea halt all military exercises with U.S. forces. Moon has already signaled some flexibility on this point, telling NBC last month that he has asked the U.S. to postpone annual drills until after the Olympics.
During the talks, North Korea may look for other concessions to participate in the Olympics, such as lifting sanctions, resuming economic cooperation and providing humanitarian aid, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a group affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
The U.N. Security Council last month approved its strongest sanctions yet on North Korea — a move that Pyongyang described as an “act of war.” The country is prohibited from exporting goods like seafood, coal and textiles, and has seen curbs on the amount of oil it is able to import.
Kim’s speech on New Year’s Day was the most promising peace overture from North Korea since President Donald Trump took office and began ratcheting up pressure through increased sanctions and threats of war. Yet it will also test the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, which became strained at times last year over the best way to halt North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“It’s a positive message that now puts the ball in Seoul and Washington’s court,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum.
“Kim focused a lot on improving North-South relations, which increases the chances of trying to drive a wedge between the allies, so it will be important for Seoul to keep Washington in the loop every step of the way and coordinate with the U.S. going forward.”
While Moon has said South Korea will talk with no preconditions, the U.S. has repeatedly said that it cannot speak directly with North Korea until it is willing to get rid of its nuclear weapons. Kim made clear on Monday that will not happen: He called North Korea’s nuclear deterrent “irreversible,” claimed the entire U.S. is within range and vowed to build more atomic warheads.
“It’s reality, not a threat, that the nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim said, adding that he will only use the weapons if North Korea is threatened. “The U.S. can never start a war against myself and our nation now.”
When asked about Kim’s threats at a New Year’s Eve gathering, Trump said, “We’ll see, we’ll see.”
Last year, North Korea conducted more than a dozen ballistic missile tests and detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device. South Korea assessed that a new intercontinental ballistic missile fired in November could potentially reach Washington, though additional analysis is needed to determine whether it is capable of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Kim’s mention of the “button” on his desk was designed to show that North Korea’s weapons can be deployed now even as questions remain, according to Koh Yu-hwan, who teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul and heads an advisory group for the presidential National Security Council.
“Kim seemed to fear that further missile tests could prompt the U.S. to take a military option,” Koh said. “By suggesting a peaceful coexistence with the U.S., Kim’s trying to reverse the direction of the broader picture.”
Last year Trump engaged in a war of words with Kim, with the two leaders trading insults through the media. Even so, Trump floated the idea of friendship with Kim on occasion, and has called on him to “make a deal” on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
While Kim’s speech provides an opening, a lasting resolution remains far away. The U.S. in particular has said it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power, and the Trump administration has said military action is possible to prevent it from acquiring a credible nuclear threat.
The U.S. and South Korea should respond to North Korea’s overtures with “eyes wide open,” said Duyeon Kim.
The U.S. and North Korea will “zero in on each other’s actions and comments closely to determine their next moves,” she said. “It is important that both sides continue practicing restraint and sending positive signals.”
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