South Korea proposes high-level talks with North

South Korea proposes high-level talks with North

SEOUL – Agence France-Presse
South Korea proposes high-level talks with North

South Korea on Jan. 2 proposed high-level talks with Pyongyang on Jan. 9, after the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un called for a breakthrough in relations and said his country might attend the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

Kim used his annual New Year address to warn he has a “nuclear button” on his table, but sweetened his remarks by expressing an interest in dialogue and participating in the Pyeongchang Games.

South Korea’s unification minister Cho Myoung-Gyon told a press conference that Seoul was “reiterating our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place in any form.”

“The government proposes to hold high-level government talks with North Korea on Jan. 9 at the Peace House in Panmunjom,” Cho said, referring to a truce village in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.”

Cho added that the specifics of the proposed talks, including its agenda, could be discussed through the inter-Korean hotline at Panmunjom, which has been cut off since 2016.

The Koreas, divided by the demilitarized zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, last held high-level talks in 2015 in an effort to ease border tensions.

Those talks were led by then-South Korean national security adviser Kim Kwan-Jin and his North Korean counterpart Hwang Pyong-So but failed to reach an agreement.

“Just the fact that they are meeting will be meaningful because it signals an attempt on both sides to improve relations,” said Koh Yu-Hwan, a political science professor at Dongguk University.

But once they sit down, the North could put Seoul in a difficult position by making unacceptable demands such as an end to the annual joint military drills with the United States, Koh added.

“What North Korea is trying to do is re-establish its relations [with Seoul] as a nuclear state. The South’s dilemma is whether we can accept that,” Koh said.

Dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who has long favored engagement to defuse tensions with the North, earlier Jan. 2 welcomed Kim’s suggestion that there could be an opportunity to kick-start dialogue.

However, he indicated that improvements in inter-Korean ties must go hand in hand with steps towards denuclearization of the North.

Moon proposed Red Cross and military talks last year, but Pyongyang did not respond.

North Korea has rattled the international community in recent months with multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test -- purportedly of a hydrogen bomb.

It has shrugged off a raft of new sanctions and heightened rhetoric from Washington as it continues to drive forward with its weapons program, and has said its arsenal is for defense against aggression from the U.S. and its allies.

Kim’s comments on Jan. 1 were the first indication of North Korea’s willingness to participate in the Winter Games, which run from Feb. 9 to 25.

Moon called them a “positive response” to Seoul’s hope that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace” and urged officials to come up with measures to realize the North’s participation.

The main venues for the Games are just 80 kilometers from the heavily fortified border with North Korea and the build-up to the event has been overshadowed by the nuclear weapons standoff.

Koeran Peninsula, diplomacy, bileteral relations,