North Korea agreed on Tuesday to send its athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, signaling a potential thaw in relations after a tension-filled 2017.
That was the most tangible result of high-level diplomatic talks that took place between the North and South at their shared border on Tuesday. It was the first time both sides had sat down for official negotiations in more than two years.
North Korea refused to discuss its nuclear and missile programs during the nearly 12-hour negotiations, but the two sides agreed to hold military talks to lower animosities at some point in the future.
Pyongyang will also send a delegation of government officials, fans, reporters, and even a taekwondo demonstration team to the games on February 9. “Senior officials from North and South Korea will be able to mingle naturally at the Winter Olympics alongside members of the international community and thereby provide an opportunity to discuss current affairs,” the South Korean government announced in a statement.
Both sides will continue talking about North Korea’s Olympic presence, including whether North Korean cheerleaders should cheer alongside their South Korean counterparts as a single unit or do so separately.
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.
But these talks are a small yet promising sign that North Korea might try to avoid that outcome — even though that’s not a certainty at this point.
Nuclear weapons aren’t on the negotiating table yet
Despite South Korea’s attempts to get North Korea to discuss its nuclear and ballistic missile programs at the talks on Tuesday, the North flatly refused.
Ri Son Gwon, North Korea’s top official at the negotiations, told reporters after the meeting that it would be “ridiculous” to bring up Pyongyang’s weapons programs at these talks because they were “strictly aimed at the US” and thus “do not target our brethren” (meaning South Korea).
Experts I spoke with earlier this week indicated that North Korea had one goal in mind during these talks — get its athletes to the Olympics — and to stop joint US–South Korea military drills.
There was an opportunity for North Korea to exploit. On January 4, President Donald Trump accepted South Korea’s offer to halt yearly military drills until after the Olympics. Pyongyang views US–South Korea military drills are merely a rehearsal for war with North Korea. It’s unclear if Trump’s decision had anything to do with North Korea’s recent willingness to talk to South Korea.
But at least North Korea is at the table instead of continuing its war of words — for now. After the Olympics, it’s possible tensions will revert back to 2017 levels.