North And South Korea Reach Breakthroughs In First High-Level Talks In 2 Years

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 11:43 pm

Updated at 2:05 p.m. ET

Cocooned by cameras, North Korea's negotiating team crossed the border Tuesday by foot, walking about 100 yards to a conference building for the first high-level talks with South Korea in two years. Seated across from one another at a long rectangular table, diplomats from both sides expressed the need to improve frosty ties.

"It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the inter-Korean relationship is more frozen than the natural climate. But despite the cold weather, the people's desire for the improvement of the inter-Korean relationship remains unfrozen," North Korea's chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, said.

Early into the talks, North Korea agreed to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea. About 11 hours of negotiations later, the two sides announced even more: future military talks, reinstatement of a hotline and other dialogue to ease tensions between the countries.

Progress around the Olympics — beginning Feb. 9 — itself is a feat. The North pledged to send a big delegation of athletes, officials, spectators, a press corps, performers and a cheering squad. It will mark the first time the North takes part in the Winter Games since 2010 in Vancouver.

This is the first time South Korea is hosting the Winter Olympics. When it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988, the North boycotted the Seoul Games and was accused of bombing a plane to sabotage them.

South Korea is not alone in its concern of how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might behave when all eyes are on the games.

Analysts say the North entered the talks at an advantage.

"The South Koreans are extremely interested in making sure they go off without a hitch," says Ian Bremmer, who heads risk consultancy the Eurasia Group. "If you're North Korea, you recognize you really have South Korea over a barrel here, because they really want not to have escalation vis-a-vis North Korea and the United States."

South Korea wanted the talks to widen to include key security concerns. But despite reports the South raised the issue of Kim's nuclear program, the North's delegation insists that those concerns are irrelevant to inter-Korean relations — claiming their country wouldn't target South Korea anyway.

"All our weapons including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia," said negotiator Ri.

Still, some observers see potential for an opening for the U.S. government.

"The Trump administration needs to find a way to use the opportunity of improved inter-Korean relations to get in there and do some serious diplomatic work on how do you lower the tension, [such as] how do you convince the North Koreans to agree to some limits and suspension of the [nuclear and missile] program and what are you going to offer them in return?" said John Delury, a North Korea watcher and professor at Seoul's Yonsei University.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it "remains in close consultations with [South Korean] officials, who will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council over North Korea's unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs."

The United Nations also welcomed the progress made in the meetings, including the plans to "work to ease military tensions, hold military-to-military talks, and reopen the inter-Korean military hotline."

For now, the fact the two Koreas are meeting at all helps tamp down tensions that have risen over Pyongyang's improving nuclear and missile capabilities.

Reopening a disconnected phone hotline in the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula's west coast, where hostilities have escalated in the past, is a positive step toward defusing tensions, according to Bremmer of Eurasia Group.

"You just generally want antagonists talking to each other," Bremmer says.

For many in South Korea, the new opening with the North represents a hopeful sign for what is still a dangerous situation.

"It reduces a certain set of risks. It doesn't solve core problems, but it does reduce risks, so that's a net positive right off the bat," Delury says.

South Korea is hoping that the future conversations will start the path of solving those core problems.

Seoul bureau assistant Se Eun Gong contributed to this story.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

North Korea and South Korea made a deal today. The North will take part in the Winter Olympics that are being hosted by the South. The games open on February 9. It is the first breakthrough in direct talks between the two Koreas, talks that haven't happened in two years. NPR's Elise Hu reports.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: South Korea is about to host the Winter Olympics for the first time in the country's history. Tickets are sold. Venues are ready. But for a while now, Seoul couldn't be sure how its northern neighbor would behave when all eyes are on the games.

IAN BREMMER: The South Koreans are extremely interested in making sure they go off without a hitch.

HU: Analyst Ian Bremmer who heads the Eurasia Group says that led to an opening for the latest talks.

BREMMER: If you're North Korea, you recognize that you've got the South Koreans over a barrel here because they really want not to have escalation vis-a-vis the United States and North Korea in this point.

HU: Cocooned by cameras and dressed in a black suit, North Korea's lead negotiator and his delegation crossed over the border by foot to walk the hundred yards or so to a conference building for the meeting. Seated across from one another at a long, rectangular table, both sides sounded earnest about improving frosty ties. North Korea's negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, actually compared the relationship to the weather.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RI SON GWON: (Through interpreter) It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the inter-Korean relationship is more frozen than the natural climate. But despite the cold weather, the people's desire for the improvement of inter-Korean relationship remains unfrozen.

HU: In the talks, North Korea swiftly agreed to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics. The delegation will include athletes, high-level visitors, a press corps and even a cheering squad, which is standard for North Korea's appearances at sporting events.

JOHN DELURY: Yeah, they're a big deal. But I'm not a cheerleading expert, you know?

HU: John Delury is a North Korea watcher and a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. He says South Korea's main hope is that the scope of conversations widen to security issues. But Delury argues since North Korea feels it is most threatened by the U.S., the U.S. should join in at some point.

DELURY: The Trump administration needs to find a way to use the opportunity of improved inter-Korean relations to get in there and start doing some serious diplomatic work on how do you lower the tensions; how do you convince the North Koreans to agree to some limits and suspension of their program, and what are you going to offer them in return?

HU: For now, the fact the two Koreas are meeting at all helps tamp down tensions that had been ratcheting throughout last year over Pyongyang's improving nuclear and missile capabilities. Not only did the North agree to send a delegation to the Olympics. It also agreed to further talks to focus on easing tensions. And the two sides are reopening another formerly disconnected phone hotline. Ian Bremmer...

BREMMER: Re-establishing the hotline makes the likelihood of sudden military strikes both from the blue or overreacting to any mistakes lower. That's a good thing. You just generally want antagonists talking to each other.

HU: For many in South Korea, the re-establish ties with the North represent a hopeful sign for what's still a dangerous situation. Delury...

DELURY: It reduces a certain set of risks. It doesn't solve core, problems but it does reduce risks. So that's a net positive right off the bat.

HU: South Korea's hoping that the future conversations will start the path of solving those core problems. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.