A first stepSouth and North Korea reactivated a communication channel between the Ministry of Unification and the Committee for the Reunification of the Fatherland in Pyongyang. The talks Tuesday in Panmunjom were a meaningful step, as was North Korea’s affirmation of its participation in the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North Korean committee and head of its delegation for the talks, even joked about the state of relations in recent years. “I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say North-South relations are [currently] more frozen than the weather,” he said.
President Moon Jae-in was watching the talks — the first since his inauguration in May — through a closed circuit television in his office. After being briefed on the results of the discussion, he reportedly conveyed messages to the South Korean delegation. Whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was watching in the same way is not confirmed yet, but the North Korean delegation’s arguments must have reflected what he wants.
North Korea decided to send a high-level delegation, athletes, cheerleaders and a Taekwondo demonstration team to the Olympics. No doubt it is good news that North Korea has created a peaceful environment for the Olympics through the closing ceremony of the Paralympics on Mar. 19. However, we should not break out the champagne yet.
The last high-level talks between Seoul and Pyongyang took place in Panmunjom on August 25, 2015, to address heightened tension after North Korea planted land mines on the border. At the time, our representatives — National Security Office head Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo — made six agreements with their North Korean counterparts, including North Korea’s apology for the deadly incident and a reunion of separated families. But that agreement was broken.
Though the discussion on North Korea’s participation in the Games is going smoothly, talks on improving ties will be an uphill battle. Moon wants to pave the way to peace through a top-level military meeting, but Kim Jong-un would certainly not welcome it. North Korea is very unlikely to accept denuclearization.
Despite Moon’s desperate hope to denuclearize North Korea, starting with a nuclear freeze and ending with a complete dismantlement of its nuclear weapons, South Korea has not opened the first door yet. Will North Korea stop nuclear or missile provocations during the Olympics? Moon’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said, “the first step is half the way.” That’s mighty optimistic.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 10, Page 30