South Korea’s Yonhap News reported on Tuesday that Seoul has proposed high-level talks with North Korea next week, ostensibly to discuss North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The offer came after North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s intriguingly “conciliatory” annual address on New Year’s Day.
“We hope that South and North Korea will sit down to discuss the North’s participation in the games and ways to improve inter-Korean ties in a frank manner. The government has a willingness to have a dialogue with the North regardless of timing, place and format,” said South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.
Cho proposed a meeting next Tuesday at the village of Panmunjom, which bridges the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and has been used for important bilateral meetings in the past, notably including the armistice talks that effectively, if not technically, ended the Korean War.
The Joint Security Area around Panmunjom was also the site of a spectacular defection by a North Korean soldier in November. He was shot several times by his pursuers, who violated South Korean territory during their pursuit, prompting a formal complaint by Seoul.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year address expressed a surprising willingness to talk to South Korea about the Winter Olympics, after a year of snubbing overtures for constructive dialogue from Seoul. Unification Minister Cho openly expressed hopes the North Koreans might be willing to talk about more than the Olympics once they get to the table in Panmunjom.
“We think that the suspended inter-Korean communication channels should be immediately restored. We propose that the two Koreas discuss details of talks including agenda items and the composition of delegations through the channel at the truce village. We look forward to the North’s positive response to this,” he said.
A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the president remains “intent to talk with North Korea anytime, anywhere, and regardless of formality.”
Of course, even Kim’s surprisingly conciliatory hope for “peaceful resolution with our southern border” came wrapped in the usual bellicose threats of nuclear apocalypse.
“North and South must work together to alleviate the tensions and work together as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability,” said Kim, urging talks about the Winter Games to begin “as soon as possible.”
However, he also said the United States should know “the button for nuclear weapons is on my table,” claimed “the entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range,” and taunted that the U.S. “can never start a war against me and our country.”
President Donald Trump initially responded to the threatening language in Kim’s address with a bemused “we’ll see, we’ll see.” On Tuesday morning, he commented at greater length on Twitter:
Sanctions and “other” pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
In his characteristically blunt style, Trump summarized the question of the hour accurately: is Kim buckling to international pressure and looking to cut a deal without appearing weak—or is the overture to South Korea one of its usual delaying tactics, or maybe even an attempt to peel South Korea away from the United States?
An analysis at Reuters postulates that Kim wishes to use the Winter Olympics “as a tool to blunt growing international pressure on Pyongyang while leaving his nuclear arsenal untouched.”
Analysts say Kim’s gambit is aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, which has advocated a strategy of maximum pressure and insisted that all options, including military ones, are on the table.
But the move also targets the broader international consensus involving major players China, Russia, and Japan that has tightened sanctions and deepened isolation for North Korea in recent months.
“A major part of the Kim family playbook is to exploit and to widen the divergences in the interests, in the first instance between the U.S. and South Korea, but more broadly among the five major neighbors,” said Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia until last April and now at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Russel went on to note that North Korea often follows a pattern of “intense provocations followed by conciliatory phases aimed at exposing rifts.” That is actually one of President Trump’s primary criticisms of previous diplomacy with the intransigent communist nation, most trenchantly expressed by publicly chiding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
Fox News offers some evidence that sanctions are hitting Pyongyang hard by posting photos from South Korean media of North Korean soldiers apparently given leave from their military duties to forage for food. Sources within North Korea said troops have been given as much as three months’ leave to gather food, and morale has grown shaky in some units.
“Even though the price of rice hasn’t changed much in the markets, people are especially worried that the effects of international sanctions will continue to mount and soon cause even more problems,” one source said.
On Tuesday, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that the United States won’t take any talk from the Kim regime seriously “unless they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea.”
“We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a Band-Aid, and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think that we need to have them stop nuclear weapons, and they need to stop it now,” she said.
“North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have,” Haley declared.