People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a high-level talks between the two Koreas at the truce village of Panmunjom, in Seoul on January 9, 2018.   Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji
People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a high-level talks between the two Koreas at the truce village of Panmunjom, in Seoul on January 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

With the long-running North Korean nuclear crisis simmering at its highest level in years, hopes are high that today’s inter-Korean talks will deliver a thaw in troubled relations.

Senior officials from the two Koreas met, as scheduled, at 10am in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone to discuss North Korea’s belated participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, from February 9-25. Although North Korea only has two figure skaters qualified, their presence, together with a delegation and possibly a cheering squad, would have immense symbolic value. South Korean officials have said that they also hope to discuss reunions of divided families and the reduction of peninsula tensions during the talks.

The head of the South Korean delegation is Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon; the head of the North Korean delegation is his counterpart, Ri Song-gwon, both highly experienced in inter-Korean issues. Sports officials are included in both delegations. Even so, South Korean television news discussing the composition of the delegations showed two of the five North Korean negotiators with their faces blacked out, signaling the opacity of the regime.

“This is the first gift of the new year to the Korean people,” Ri said in his opening remarks. “I came here with hopes that the two Koreas hold talks with a sincere and faithful attitude to give precious results to the Korean people who harbor high expectations for this meeting.”

Cho said: “These talks started after long-frayed inter-Korean ties. Well begun is half done; I hope that [we can] hold the talks with determination and persistence.”

The discussions are the first high-level negotiations between the Koreas since 2015, and the first of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, which took power in May 2017.

The talks follow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s customary New Year’s message, during which he said that his state would “mass-produce” nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but also offered a surprise olive branch – suggesting immediate inter-Korean talks, and wishing the South a successful Olympics.  The South responded the following day, suggesting inter-Korean negotiations – a long-held aim of the Moon government.

Earlier, TV news feeds showed the South Korean delegation crossing the border and the two be-suited delegations sitting at the table. The talks are not being held in the iconic blue huts that straddle the border in Panmunjeom, but in the more accommodating “Peace House,” on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area, or JSA – the unique location inside the DMZ where talks customarily take place.

It is not known at what time the two delegations will finish their discussions and brief waiting pool reporters at the scene. International journalists in Seoul are awaiting developments at a briefing room established by the Unification Ministry. Pool reports covered the event in detail – down, even, to the color of the pencils on the negotiating table (red and blue).

One North Korea watcher in Seoul said that the metric deciding the success or failure of today’s talks would be whether the North is cleared to participate in the Games and whether a follow-up meeting would be agreed to.

“This is an ice-breaking moment in inter-Korean relations,” said Choi Kang, vice president of think tank the Asan Institute. “At the end of the day, if they agree to come to the Winter Olympics, that is the best result I can think of; it is necessary to have a continuation of these kinds of talks.”

South Korea’s Moon spoke to Donald Trump about the upcoming talks in a telephone discussion last week, gaining the US president’s approval to halt scheduled winter military exercises as a goodwill gesture ahead of the Winter Games.

The surging international interest in today’s talks may have led Trump himself to consider talks with Pyongyang. Asked about that possibility by reporters on Saturday, he replied, “Sure, I always believe in talking,” Trump said. “Absolutely I would do that, I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.” But he added that any talks would come with conditions, which he did not specify.

The US appears to be pursuing a carrot-and-stick approach toward the hardline regime. Trump and his senior officials warn of military action, but the president himself also suggests he would be willing to negotiate directly with the leader he refers to as “Little Rocket Man.”

Moon, on the other hand, has made clear that he is against any war on the peninsula, but has cooperated with ally the United States on military drills, sanctions and diplomatic pressure on North Korea.

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