North Korea will join Olympics, military talks planned, another hotline between countries restored
The two Koreas wrapped up their first high-level talks since December 2015, which were marked by an agreement for North Korean athletes to come to the Winter Olympics and some other surprising concessions — but also some angry disagreement.
The high-level talks were held from 10 a.m. to 8:42 p.m. in multiple rounds at the Peace House, a South Korea-controlled building in the truce village of Panmunjom, which straddles the border. The talks were monitored by authorities from both countries, making it possible for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or South Korean President Moon Jae-in to intervene in real time.
It appears North Korea dismissed the South’s proposal to discuss a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which was initially raised last July along with the idea of military talks.
Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, one of five South Koreans who participated in the meeting with the North, said the South raised the issue Tuesday morning, suggesting reunions could be held during the upcoming Lunar New Year’s holiday, which falls between Feb. 15 and 17.
There was no agreement.
Through a succession of meetings Tuesday, Pyongyang proposed sending a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics composed of athletes, cheerleaders, journalists, high-level government officials and taekwondo performers, which Seoul agreed to support.
South Korean government officials urged the North to stop raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and quickly resume negotiations over its denuclearization, suggestions Pyongyang officials “fiercely denounced,” according to pool reports. The North reassured that its long-range missiles and hydrogen bombs were all aimed at the United States, not the South.
On North Korea’s Olympics participation, Seoul suggested the two countries’ delegations walk side-by-side during the opening ceremony on Feb. 9 and form a combined cheering squad, to which Pyongyang responded it would positively review. Seoul said it hoped the North Korean delegation would be “as large as possible.”
Kim Jong-un did not personally send any comments via the North Korean interlocutors, Chun said.
In the morning, North Korea told the South it restored a military hotline between the two Koreas along the west coast, which had been suspended since February 2016. Chun did not explain Pyongyang’s intention behind the move, but said Seoul agreed to restart “normal operations” on the line from Wednesday.
South Korea’s five-member delegation for the inter-Korean talks included Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, Vice Unification Minister Chun; Roh Tae-kang, second vice minister of culture, sports and tourism; Ahn Moo-hyun, deputy director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office; and Kim Ki-hong, vice president of Games planning for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games.
North Korea’s five-member delegation, led by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which handles inter-Korean relations within the North Korean government, included Jon Jong-su, vice chairman of the committee; Hwang Chung-song a director at the committee; Won Kil-u, vice minister of physical culture and sports; and Ri Kyong-sik, a member of the DPRK Olympic Committee.
“I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say North-South relations are [currently] more frozen than the weather,” Ri said Tuesday in opening remarks. “I arrived at this meeting hoping that the North-South governments pull off a successful meeting with sincerity and faithfulness, so that we can gift our whole nation, which is watching this high-level meeting with so much expectation, with the precious outcome.”
In response, South Korea’s chief delegate, Unification Minister Cho, referred to the proverb, “The start is half,” saying, “The meeting has begun after a long rupture of South-North ties, but really, the first step is half the way. In that sense, I hope we start the meeting with willingness and perseverance.”
Cho continued, “At the same time, this is contrary [to what I just said], but there’s also a saying that goes, ‘Can one’s hunger be satisfied with the first spoonful of food?’ Taking that into consideration, I hope we don’t rush and unknot [our issues] one at a time with perseverance.”
At one point, Ri suggested they open their meeting to the press, citing the public’s “keen interest” in the inter-Korean talks. Doing so would prove how much the North is making a “serious effort,” he said.
But Cho politely refused, suggesting they stick to the customary practice of keeping the high-level meeting private because they had “a lot to talk about” after the long period of no dialogue.
Talks on North Korea’s possible participation in the Winter Games came as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Monday it would extend its registration deadline for North Korean athletes in the PyeongChang Olympics, though without explaining by how much.
The IOC said in a statement that it would talk with all concerned parties about the North’s participation, adding that its mission was to ensure the participation of all qualified athletes, beyond all political tensions and divisions.
The only North Korean athletes who qualified for the Olympics are the figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, but they failed to register in time last October and the spot was given to Japan. One possible option for the IOC would be to give a wildcard to North Korea.
The thawing of tensions between the two Koreas began on Jan. 1 when North Korean leader Kim said in an unusually conciliatory New Year’s address he was willing to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and suggested the North and South “urgently meet.” Kim did not specify what the delegation would look like.
It was the first time Pyongyang responded to Seoul’s repeated invitations to join the Games, set to kick off on Feb. 9 in South Korea’s northeastern counties of Pyeongchang and Jeongseon and city of Gangneung, in Gangwon.
It was also the first time since President Moon took office last May that North Korea showed any interest in bilateral dialogue.
On Jan. 2, Seoul picked up Kim’s cue and suggested they meet today near the heavily fortified border separating the two countries for a high-level meeting. The next day, North Korea’s inter-Korean relations chief Ri said in a televised statement that Kim “welcomed” Seoul’s positive reaction to his New Year’s address and ordered the reopening of the Panmunjom hotline to discuss the Olympics.
The Panmunjom channel had been closed for 23 months after Pyongyang severed all communication in February 2016 when the administration of President Park Geun-hye shut down the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January and subsequent long-range rocket launch.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JOINT PRESS CORPS [firstname.lastname@example.org]