North Korea and South Korea will hold high-level diplomatic talks next week — the first time the two countries will officially speak to each other in more than two years.
It’s yet another sign that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is looking for ways to calm tensions ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea next month.
For most of last year, it looked like the United States and North Korea were careening toward a potentially catastrophic war, a conflict that would’ve also involved South Korea. It’s possible that the North is using these talks as a way to avoid that outcome.
“The agenda is on matters regarding Pyeongchang Olympic games as well as issues concerning improving inter-Korean ties,” Baek Tae-hyun, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, told reporters on January 5.
The talks will take place in the Demilitarized Zone — the inter-Korean border — on January 9, and will be the first time each side has formally spoken to the other since December 2015.
A whirlwind week of diplomacy led to this moment
This all happened in just under a week.
During a New Year’s Day speech, Kim said he wanted North Korean athletes to participate in the Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has long advocated for an ongoing dialogue with North Korea, quickly reacted to Kim’s speech by saying it was “a response to our proposal to turn the Pyeongchang Olympic Games into an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace.”
Just a day later, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said both countries should meet at the border village of Panmunjom on January 9 to discuss the Olympics and ways to improve overall ties.
Then, on January 3, lower-level military officials from the North and South spoke over a phone line meant to avoid war for the first time since February 2016. They “checked technical issues of the communication line” for about 20 minutes, according to the Ministry of Unification. North Korea then called South Korea around 6:07 pm simply to say they were done talking for the day, the ministry said.
The following day, the United States accepted South Korea’s proposal to delay yearly military drills until after the Olympics. That likely made North Korea happy: It sees US-South Korea exercises as thinly veiled training for a future war with the North. Experts told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp that President Donald Trump’s decision to agree to the delay may indeed decrease tensions ahead of the Olympics.
They may have a point: Hours after the postponement announcement, Ri Son Kwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, faxed — yes, faxed — a message to Cho saying his country was ready for diplomatic talks next week.
So there is reason for optimism — but some experts I spoke to are skeptical that these recent steps will amount to much.
“We need to be very cautious about our expectations given North Korea’s long history of effectively using these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and its partners, and to push for concessions Seoul couldn’t possibly accept,” Mintaro Oba, a former Obama State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told me in an interview on January 4, a day before North Korea agreed to talk to South Korea.
But for now, a peaceful resolution to simmering tensions as the Olympics near is a possibility — even if it’s still a remote one.