SEOUL, South Korea — Senior officials from the rival Koreas said Tuesday they would try to achieve a breakthrough in their long-strained ties as they sat for rare talks at the border to discuss how to cooperate in next month’s Winter Olympics in the South and other issues.
The Koreas’ first talks in two years were arranged after North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un recently made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea after a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.
“I think we should be engaged in these talks with an earnest, sincere manner to give a New Year’s first gift — precious results (of the talks) to the Korean nation,” chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon said at the start of the negotiations, according to media footage from the venue. Ri wore a lapel pin with the images of Kim’s father and grandfather, late North Korean rulers Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Ri’s South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said he also hopes they would come up with a “good gift” that would satisfy Korean people’s wishes for better ties. “There is a saying ‘well begun is half done.’ I’d like us to have will and patience to resolve (issues) at the negotiation,” Cho said.
The talks were being held at the village of Panmunjom, the only place on the tense border where North and South Korean soldiers are feet away from each other. A North Korean soldier late last year defected to the South amid a hail of bullets fired by his comrades. He was hit five times but survived.
Despite the seeming amicable start of the talks, the prospect for the negotiations was unclear. The two Koreas have a long history of ending key talks without any agreement and failing to follow through with rapprochement accords.
South Korean officials said they would focus first on Olympic cooperation in Tuesday’s talks before dealing with tougher political and military issues. The government of South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in wants North Korea to take part in the Feb. 9-25 Games as a way to improve relations.
It’s likely the two Koreas agree on the North’s Olympic participation, but they remain sharply at odds over how to improve their overall ties.
Moon’s government wants to resume temporary reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war and work out substantial measures to reduce animosities at the border. North Korea is expected to demand rewards in turn, like Seoul halting propaganda broadcasts and scaling back or halting military drills with the U.S., observers say.
Suspension of the military drills would be unacceptable for Seoul because that would seriously undermine the alliance with its chief ally the United States, which wants to put more pressures on Pyongyang. The North views the drills as a rehearsal for a northward invasion.
“As President Moon has said, the improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program,” Brian Hook, a chief adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, told reporters in a conference call late Monday Washington time. “And so, we remain focused on our global pressure campaign. That campaign is designed to bring Kim Jong Un to the table for meaningful negations.”
President Donald Trump on Saturday expressed hope for some progress from the talks and said he was open to talking with Kim himself. But U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley later said the U.S. administration isn’t changing its conditions regarding talks with North Korea, saying Kim would first need to stop weapons testing for a “significant amount of time.”
In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said there is an urgent need to improve inter-Korean ties and that he is willing to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games. He urged Seoul to halt the military drills with the U.S. and said he has a “nuclear button” to launch missiles at any target in the United States.
Moon, who favors dialogue as a way to defuse the North Korean nuclear standoff, welcomed Kim’s outreach and proposed talks at Panmunjom. Kim quickly accepted.
The Trump administration agreed last week to delay springtime military drills with South Korea until after the Games. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted the delay was a practical necessity to accommodate the Olympics, not a political gesture.
Trump and Kim traded bellicose warlike rhetoric and even crude insults last year, as the North conducted it sixth and most powerful nuclear detonation and three tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the Games. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said the registration deadline has been extended and that the Switzerland-based committee supports North Korean athletes in the qualification process, while respecting U.N. sanctions against North Korea.