North and South Korea Move Towards Talks

Panmunjeom_DMZ
A file photo of South Korean soldiers on guard at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. Image Credit: Henrik Ishihara via Wikimedia Commons

South Korean President Moon Jae-In said on Wednesday that he would be willing to talk to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to discuss issues including denuclearizing the peninsula. Moon added that he was not looking for a ‘meeting for the sake of a meeting’.

Moon’s statement came a day after North Korea proposed sending a senior delegation of officials along with its athletes to the Winter Olympics, slated to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea starting February 9.

Earlier that day, North Korea had confirmed it would be sending athletes to the Winter Olympics. The two sides held their talks near the old village of Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone dividing north and south.

‘It was not immediately clear whether North Korea attached any conditions to its decision to attend,’ The New York Times reported.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un first offered to send athletes to the games during a speech on December 31. Kim also sounded a conciliatory note. ‘Above all, we must ease the acute military tensions between the North and the South,’ he said.

‘The North and the South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment.’

On Wednesday, Moon praised US President Donald Trump for helping to make the talks possible. However, South Korea’s insistence on discussing denuclearizing, though probably a negotiating ploy, is likely to remain non-starter for Pyongyang.

‘Speaking of the nuclear issue, all state-of art-strategic weapons, including atomic and hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, rockets, are entirely targeting the US. It is not targeting our own people. It is not targeting China and Russia as well,’ North Korea’s top negotiator Ri Son Gwon said on Tuesday.

Ri is probably being economical with the truth. In the event of a large-scale war on the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang’s strategy of asymmetric escalation will involve using shorter range nuclear missiles against US bases in South Korea and Japan as well as against South Korean forces. Kim’s longer range ICBMs, which are capable of hitting US cities, would then be used to deter the US from retaliating.

Why the thaw?

North Korea could be looking for sanctions relief by opening talks with Seoul. (As of now, it appears Kim Jong-Un is not interested in talking to the United States.)

“Every bit of this conversation on the Olympics that allows them to push for concessions, or sanctions relief, or possibly drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, is a good thing for them,’ Mason Richey a professor of politics at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies told Al Jazeera.

Better relations with the North also form part of the political agenda of South Korea’s left-leaning president Moon Jae In. However, it can hardly be lost on officials from Seoul that the North Koreans have not reacted well when left out major sporting events hosted in the South.

After South Korea was picked to host the Summer Olympics in 1988, the CIA warned that Pyongyang could resort to acts of violent sabotage. On November 29 1987, two North Korean agents placed a bomb on a Korean Air Lines flight taking off from Baghdad. The aircraft blew up over the Andamans Sea killing all 115. The agents were eventually found in Bahrain. One managed to commit suicide with a cyanide capsule while the other was captured and sent to Seoul for interrogation. Pyongyang boycotted the games.

The North also lashed out towards the end of the 2002 football World Cup. On June 29, a small naval battle broke out between North and South Korean vessels in the Yellow Sea, killing five from the South and possibly dozens from the North.

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