South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim Jong Un’s apparent willingness to enter into dialogue and called for swift measures to help North Korea participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during a Cabinet meeting in Seoul on Tuesday.
The North Korean leader struck an unusually conciliatory note in his annual New Year’s Day address Monday, declaring his hope “for (a) peaceful resolution with our southern border.”
In the televised address, Kim called for peace on the Korean peninsula and said North Korean representatives should start talks with their South Korean counterparts “as soon as possible” to discuss sending a delegation to the 2018 Winter Games, to be hosted in South Korea next month.
Moon, who has long advocated for closer relations with the North, described Kim’s remarks “as a response to our proposal to turn the Pyeongchang Olympic Games into an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace.”
Moon said he would ask the Unification Ministry — the government department responsible for inter-Korean relations — and the Ministry of Culture and Sports “to quickly come up with follow-up measures for the speedy restoration of South-North Korean dialogue and realize the North Korean delegation’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics.”
Kim’s comments appear to have galvanized efforts within Moon’s administration to secure North Korea’s participation in the Games.
On Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon suggested high-level government talks with North Korea could be held as soon as January 9, in the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
“The government proposes the North to hold high level inter-Korean government talks at the Peace House of Panmunjom in consideration that the Winter Olympics is about a month away and to discuss related matters such as the participation of North Korea’s delegation in the PyongChang Olympics,” Cho said during a press briefing in Seoul.
Cho added that this government would remain “open to suggestions” as to the “timing, venue and format” of any future dialogue with the North.
North Korea has yet to respond to the offer. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the efforts from both North and South Korea to improve relations with each other.
The 2018 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on February 9, have been championed by Moon as a possible means of easing tensions on the Korean peninsula. In an interview with CNN in November, the South Korean president described the games as an opportunity for inter-Korean peace and reconciliation, and expressed his hope that North Korea would participate.
The games are due to take place 30 years after Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, a turbulent era in which a number of nations — including North Korea — decided to boycott the games.
To date, only two North Korean athletes had qualified for the games, figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, however, the country’s National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline to accept their spot. There has been talk of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) granting an additional quota, something previously proposed by Choi Moon-soon, governor of the Gangwon province that will host the Winter Games.
Kim’s sudden willingness to reach out to the South has surprised analysts, leading to suggestions that it may be part of a new strategy aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
Stratfor Vice President of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker told CNN that Kim may be seeking to “exploit Seoul’s sense of insecurity” by enlisting South Korea in pushing back against tighter US containment.
“By suggesting North Korea will send a delegation to the Olympics, the North may also add impetus to the South’s offer to delay joint defense exercises with the US, and may add to some of the differences between Seoul and Washington in coordinated North Korea policies,” said Baker, referring to comments made by Moon during an interview with NBC in November in which the South Korean leader hinted at the possibility of delaying joint military exercises with the US until after the Winter Olympics.
Since coming to office in May, Moon’s willingness to seek a diplomatic solution to the Korean crisis has on occasion appeared at odds with that of the US, and in particular, that of US President Donald Trump. In September, Trump accused Moon of seeking “appeasement” with North Korea following the successful completion of Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
Moon’s stance has been compared to the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of the liberal governments of 1998 to 2008. Under the Sunshine Policy, Seoul actively engaged Pyongyang, which led to closer relations on both sides of the border and saw two South Korean presidents visit the North Korean capital. However, the approach ultimately failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Speaking Monday, Moon said improvements in inter-Korean relations was “not a matter that can go a separate way from the issue of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.”
“I also ask the Foreign Ministry to closely consult with our allies and the international community to push for both an improvement in inter-Korean relationship and the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue at the same time,” said Moon.
Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing told CNN that North Korea does “not want to appear threatening and provocative.”
“He (Kim) wants to convince the international community that his nuclear weapons are purely for self-defense and wants to have a negotiated solution with the United States on the basis that he gets to keep its nuclear deterrent capability, Zhao said.
“After achieving a preliminary strategic deterrent capability, North Korea might want to deescalate tensions and see(s) the Winter Olympics as a golden opportunity. The games make it possible for Washington and Seoul to meet Pyongyang’s demand for self-restraint — adjusting their military exercises — without losing face and appearing weak on Pyongyang.”