quicktake

Why North-South Korea Talks Are About More Than Just Olympic Medals

Korea Society President Thomas Byrne discusses talks between North and South Korea.

At 10 a.m. Seoul time on Tuesday, North Korean and South Korean officials will open their first high-level meeting in more than two years. The meeting at a village on their shared border will focus on North Korea’s participation at next month’s Winter Olympics in the South Korean mountain resort of Pyeongchang. But there’s much more at stake. After a tumultuous year in which Kim Jong Un’s regime accelerated its nuclear weapons program and U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to strike back with “fire and fury,” it’s an opportunity to ease tensions -- and possibly open the door to peace talks.

South Korean police officers stand guard at a military check point on the Unification Bridge on Jan. 9.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

1. Why is the meeting important?

It’s the best chance since Trump took office to resurrect negotiations on Kim’s missiles and nuclear weapons. Since then, North Korea detonated its most powerful nuclear device and tested more than a dozen missiles. According to defense analysts, the most recent missile had the range to reach Washington, even if doubts remain that it could successfully re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

2. What’s on the agenda?

While the meeting is focused on North Korea’s participation at the Olympics starting on Feb. 9, South Korea’s government says there are no limits to what can be discussed. South Korea plans to talk about opening a dialogue with the North Korean military and reuniting separated families. North Korea hasn’t laid out a wishlist, though there’s speculation it may ask South Korea to resume aid and tourism, and reopen a jointly run industrial park.

Ri Son Gwon and Cho Myoung-gyon in the Demilitarized Zone on Jan. 9.

Photographer: Jung Ui Chel/Bloomberg

3. How did the talks come about?

President Moon Jae-in, who became president in May, has repeatedly called for North Korea’s skiers, skaters and other athletes to attend the Winter Games. After a year of mostly chilly rhetoric, Kim struck a warmer tone in his New Year’s speech, offering to send a delegation to the Olympics and engage in broader talks aimed at melting “frozen North-South relations.” Moon quickly responded, suggesting the two sides meet on Jan. 9 at the place where the 1953 Korean War armistice was signed. Trump later took credit for North Korea’s change of tone, and agreed not to hold annual joint military drills with South Korea -- long considered by Pyongyang a serious provocation and a prelude to invasion -- during the Olympics.

4. What are the risks?

The U.S. strategy has been to isolate and squeeze North Korea economically until Kim agrees to halt his nuclear weapons program. The danger is that South Korea makes concessions that undercut U.S.-championed United Nations sanctions. Those measures were tightened just a few weeks ago for the second time in five months. In August, Trump described Moon’s attempts to engage North Korea in talks as “appeasement.” Ahead of the latest talks, both the U.S. and South Korean officials have stressed that they are fully on the same page.

5. What does the U.S. say?

“Talks are a good thing!” Trump tweeted last week after Moon called to say his government would coordinate with the Americans. Trump then said the U.S. was open to joining discussions with the two Koreas at “the appropriate time” and he’d be willing to speak directly with Kim under the right conditions. Other U.S. officials have been more skeptical. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Associated Press that it could be an important breakthrough or simply a meeting “about the Olympics and nothing else happens.”

6. What does China say?

China has long advocated a so-called “suspension-for-suspension” proposal that, in order to start talks, would require the U.S. and South Korea to freeze their annual military drills and Kim to halt his nuclear and missile tests. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Jan. 5 that China welcomed moves to improve relations between the Koreas. There’s little doubt the Chinese would appreciate South Korea engaging North Korea in a way that undermines its U.S. alliance. Japan, another U.S. ally, is particularly skeptical that the talks will prompt North Korea to change its behavior.

7. Is Kim serious or just looking for time?

He’s serious, according to an analysis of his recent comments by 38 North, a website run by Johns Hopkins University that’s devoted to North Korea relations. Both Moon and Kim will be able to listen in on the discussions and intervene if needed, according to a South Korean government official. Leading the delegation from North Korea is Ri Son Gwon, who attended military talks in 2007 and 2014, as well as negotiations over the joint industrial park in 2013. From South Korea there’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who accompanied former President Roh Moo-hyun for a summit in Pyongyang with Kim’s late father -- former leader Kim Jong Il -- in 2007.

8. When were the most recent talks?

The two sides last spoke formally in 2015, when they held five meetings. They met 24 times in 2013. Separately, the UN Security Council has repeatedly called for the resumption of six-party talks aimed at negotiating a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Those talks -- which included North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. -- broke off in 2009.

The Reference Shelf

  • The aim is to engage Kim without irking Trump.
  • Kim wants to divide the U.S. and South Korea, says Bloomberg View.
  • A QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • A Bloomberg infographic considers the range of North Korea’s missile threat.
  • A bunch of Q&As on the North Korean problem.

— With assistance by Kanga Kong

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