North, South Korea break the ice with rare talks ahead of Winter Olympics

North and South Korea kicked off their first formal talks in more than two years on Tuesday, brought together by sport to discuss how the North’s athletes can attend next month’s Winter Olympics in the South despite simmering fears of conflict.

Regardless of its narrow, primarily sporting agenda, the meeting will be closely watched by world leaders eager for any sign of a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula amid rising fears over the North’s development of nuclear weapons and defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

“Today we’ll engage in talks to discuss North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Paralympics as well as the improvement of inter-Korean relations,” Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who is heading the South’s delegation, told reporters on his way to the talks.

Cho has said his delegation is also preparing to discuss resuming reunions of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire and technically left the two Koreas still at war.

Some South Korean officials are hoping the two Koreas may even march under a single flag at the Winter Games, which would be the first time in more than a decade that the rival nations united under one flag at a sporting event opening.

Pointing to his briefcase before departing for the border, Cho smiled and said, “I have a bit of luggage,” adding, “Everything feels slightly new as we have not had talks in a while.”

Just before the delegation drove into the demilitarized zone some 20 South Koreans were seen waving a banner reading: “We wish the success of the high-ranking inter-Korean talks”. One man was spotted waving a flag with a unified Korean peninsula.

North Korea opens peace talks with South Korea3:15

On Tuesday morning, five senior officials from each side met at the three-storey Peace House on the South Korean side of the Panmunjom truce village.

The North Korean delegation walked over the border inside the joint security area (JSA) to the Peace House 30 minutes before the talks were to begin, a Unification Ministry official told reporters.

Cameras and microphones are usually placed in the room to ensure that officials from both sides can monitor the talks.

U.S. response

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the war, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings.

The U.S. State Department had said Pyongyang “might be trying to drive a wedge” between Washington and Seoul and weaken a U.S.-led campaign to force North Korea to give up its development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.

State Department adviser Brian Hook said the U.S. views Tuesday’s talks as a good start but that it’s too early to know if they’ll be meaningful beyond the Olympics preparations. He said sanctions on Pyongyang would continue until the U.S. reached its goal of “the complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Hook said U.S. President Donald Trump credits the pressure campaign with convincing the North to agree to renewed dialogue with the South. 

Trump spent much of the past year deriding negotiations as useless and lobbing insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But on Thursday, Trump called the new talks “a good thing,” claiming they had been prompted by his “firm, strong” stance, which has included harsher international sanctions and threats of military intervention if the North does not give up its weapons program.

TRUMP-MOON-ASIA/SOUTHKOREA

U.S. President Donald Trump shares a toast during a state dinner hosted by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House in Seoul on Nov. 7. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On Saturday, Trump said he was “100 per cent” behind the talks and hoped for positive developments. He also said he would “absolutely” be willing to talk on the phone to Kim.

“Look, right now they’re talking Olympics. It’s a start, it’s a big start,” he said. “If something can happen and something comes out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity, that would be a great thing for the world,” he said.

Trump said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics and added: “At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, did not respond directly when asked about suggestions from some South Korean officials that the two Koreas could march under a single flag at the Olympic opening ceremony and even compete as a single nation in some events, but said, “We are in close contact with the Republic of Korea about our unified response to North Korea, including the need to maintain pressure to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

“Diplomatic options remain viable and open and the United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”

NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/KIMJONGUN-IMAGE

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un delivers his New Year’s Day speech in Pyongyang. (KCNA/Reuters)

At the same time, Adams said, Washington remained “clear-eyed about [North Korea’s] track record when it comes to negotiations,” adding, “Time will tell if this is a genuine gesture.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated last week that any future talks between the United States and North Korea must be aimed at denuclearization and warned that diplomatic efforts were backed by a strong military option if necessary.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in persuaded the U.S. to delay joint military exercises until after the Olympics in a bid to reduce tensions and possibly create room for diplomacy.

Kim’s ‘remarkable’ proposal

The talks come after North Korea’s Kim used his New Year’s Day speech to announce he was open to sending a delegation to the Olympics as well as reducing military tensions on the Korean peninsula, while vowing to never give up his nuclear weapons program.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, Yonsei University associate professor John Delury writes that Kim’s proposal was “remarkable for two reasons. 

“First, Kim chose a concrete deliverable, which is coming up soon — signaling a readiness to act; second, the Olympics is Moon’s agenda, not Kim’s.”

Kim Jong-un calls for diplomacy with South Korea, but remains defiant against U.S.2:10

Delury notes that Moon’s recent efforts to use the Olympics to reduce tensions created “the opening which we are now seeing bear fruit.”

However, “The bigger fish will be to use the Olympics as a stepping stone to improve inter-Korean relations.” Delury writes.

He adds that this month’s summit in Vancouver — between countries that fought alongside the South during the war — should be used to “coordinate a new phase of maximizing engagement, not just pressure.”

‘Serious and sincere’

North Korea’s delegation is led by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Committee vice chairman Jon Song-su and Hwang Chung-song, a director, will join Ri.

Ri, who was promoted to his current position in June 2016, is a seasoned negotiator for inter-Korean talks although his previous experience has mostly been military-related due to his career in the armed forces.

Ri says he expects the talks to go well.

“Today, North and South Korea will engage in talks in a serious and sincere stance,” Ri told reporters before entering the venue.

Taiwan ISU Four Continents Figure Skating

Figure skaters Ryom Ok Tae and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea have qualified for the Olympic Winter Games. They trained in Montreal. (The Associated Press)

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