South Korea proposed holding talks on Jan. 9 with North Korea to discuss participation in the Winter Olympics next month, a move that may ease tensions over the country’s nuclear program.
South Korea is suggesting that high-ranking officials from both sides meet at the border village of Panmunjom, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday. It would be the first formal meeting between the two Koreas since 2015.
“We expect to sit down with North Korea face to face and frankly discuss mutual interests aimed at better inter-Korean relations,” Cho said, reaffirming the government’s willingness to talk to Kim’s regime without conditions. “We look forward to Pyongyang’s positive reaction to this.”
South Korea is looking to move quickly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proposed talks with Seoul in a New Year’s Day address, one of the most promising peace overtures since Donald Trump took office. The U.S. president has led a campaign to increase sanctions on Kim’s regime and threatened military action to dismantle his nuclear program.
South Korea coordinated with the U.S. before making its proposal to North Korea, Cho said. In addition to clearing the way for North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, Seoul wanted to use the opportunity to rebuild overall relations, he said.
Many obstacles remain toward a deal that could prompt North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, which Kim on Monday said were essential to deter a U.S. invasion. Past efforts at dialogue have failed in the past, and the U.S. has said it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power.
Still, the possibility of talks reduces the odds of a military conflict, which had seemed more probable as North Korea tested weapons and Trump issued threats. While Kim claims to have the capability to strike anywhere in the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, analysts say it’s unclear if a warhead would be able to survive re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere and target specific locations.
Any talks are likely to have only a limited outcome as South Korea relies on the U.S. for defense and wouldn’t want to undermine Trump’s push to enforce sanctions against North Korea, said Lee Ho-ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Easy measures include humanitarian assistance and reuniting separated families, he said.
“The detente could last throughout this year, but it’s too hasty to expect too much from this meeting,” Lee said. “If the South believes that having eye contact with North Korean officials at the Olympics would lead to a shift of the situation, that would be only wishful thinking.”
China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, welcomed the push for talks and called on both Koreas to take the opportunity to improve ties. China has long called for negotiations to reduce tensions.
“It is a good thing,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.
Earlier, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his government to act swiftly on Kim’s offer. Since taking power last year, Moon has sought to ease tensions with North Korea through dialogue, offers of aid and an invitation to participate in the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, a city not far from the border dividing the Korean Peninsula.
“Improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue are not separate from each other,” Moon said. Any talks must be closely coordinated with South Korea’s allies and the international community, he added.
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