South Korean officials will face a challenge as tough as any Olympic feat this week: drawing the North Koreans back to talks without undermining the U.S.’s hard line against Kim Jong Un.
The neighboring nations are scheduled to hold their first high-level meeting in more than two years Tuesday at a border village. The talks — ostensibly focused on North Korea joining next month’s Winter Olympics in nearby Pyeongchang — are the best chance to resurrect negotiations on Kim’s nuclear weapons program since President Donald Trump took office.
They also represent a moment of risk for an alliance that has endured since the Korean War in the 1950s. While President Moon Jae-in has long favored engagement with North Korea — and set no limits on the meeting’s agenda — he doesn’t want to endanger U.S.-led efforts to isolate Kim until the North Korean leader agrees to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
Those competing interests restrain what Moon’s negotiating team can offer North Korea beyond cooperation in the Olympics. Some possible South Korean enticements, such as reopening a jointly run industrial park and resuming tourism to North Korea, could undercut United Nations sanctions that were tightened just a few weeks ago.
Moon’s government doesn’t know what North Korea wants from the talks, according to three South Korean government officials. In initial conversations, North Korean officials haven’t indicated their goals besides participating in the Games, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“For the South, it’s important to defend its red line of not damaging the U.N. sanctions,” said Shin Beomchul, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy and a former director general for policy planning at the foreign ministry. “Discussions are likely to include reunions of separated families and military trust-building, but the North may try to add what’s on its wish list, such as humanitarian aid and economic cooperation.”
Kim’s motivation for suddenly proposing the Olympic detente in a New Year address, a departure from his usually dismissive approach toward South Korea, has been seen as an attempt to exploit Moon’s desire for reconciliation and Trump’s push to eliminate a threat to the U.S. homeland. Sanctions against Kim have targeted oil imports and much of the country’s export revenue.
A commentary published Sunday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang described improved ties with Seoul as a “crucial matter” and warned that “depending on foreign powers” could complicate talks.
Trump and other U.S. officials have so far expressed support for the dialogue while playing down the prospect of a bigger breakthrough. Kim has vowed to never surrender his nuclear arsenal, which makes any U.S.-backed regime-change effort like those in Iraq and Libya far more dangerous.
“Right now, they’re talking Olympics. It’s a start. It’s a big start,” Trump said Saturday. The president, who had previously dismissed the value of diplomacy, said it would be “great for humanity” if something more resulted, even suggesting he could meet Kim under the right conditions.
Other Trump administration officials have been cautious. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Friday that North Korea can’t “drive a wedge” into the U.S.-South Korea alliance, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Associated Press that it could be an important breakthrough or simply a meeting “about the Olympics and nothing else happens.”
(Margaret Talev and Heejin Kim contributed to this report.)
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