North Korea, South Korea to meet for in-person talks
The rival Koreas will sit down for their first formal talks in more than two years next week to find ways to cooperate on the Winter Olympics in the South and to improve their abysmal ties, Seoul officials said Friday. While a positive sign after last year’s threats of nuclear war, the Koreas have a long history of failing to move past their deep animosity.
The announcement came hours after the United States said it will delay annual military exercises with South Korea until after the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. The exercises infuriate North Korea, which claims they are an invasion rehearsal, although South Korea and the United States have repeatedly said they are defensive in nature.
On Friday morning, North Korea sent a message saying it would accept South Korea’s offer to meet at the border village of Panmunjom next Tuesday to discuss Olympic cooperation and how to improve overall ties, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korean matters. Panmunjom is where a North Korean soldier dashed across the border into the South in November. He is recovering after being shot five times by his former comrades.
Any dialogue between the Koreas is seen as a positive step. But critics say the North’s abrupt push to improve ties may be a tactic to divide Seoul and Washington and weaken international pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang.
In his New Year’s address Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics but he also said he has a “nuclear button” on his desk to fire atomic weapons at the United States.
Past breakthroughs to ease Korean tensions have often ended with renewed animosities. It’s likely the North will refrain from provocations during the Games. But tensions could return afterward because the North has no intention of abandoning its weapons programs and the United States will not ease its pressure on the country, analysts say.
The Trump government on Thursday said its springtime military drills with South Korea will be held from March 8-18 following the Feb. 9-25 Olympic Games. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted the delay was a practical necessity to accommodate the Olympics, not a political gesture.
The White House said Trump approved the postponement in consultation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said he suggested the drills’ delay to the United States.