Head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon during their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on January 9, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

With the North Korean nuclear crisis simmering at its fiercest heat in years, hopes were high that Tuesday’s inter-Korean talks would offer breathing space during the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held in the South. They appear to have delivered that – and more.

While nobody expected the talks to disperse the nuclear clouds overhanging the Korean Peninsula, they seem to have ensured a peaceful Winter Olympiad prior to the spring, when South Korean-US military exercises customarily raise Pyongyang’s ire and regional tensions. The almost 12-hour-long talks also realized South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hopes for further negotiations on more substantive issues, as the two sides agreed, in a joint statement, to hold military talks to ease simmering tensions.

North Korean delegation led by Ri Son Gwon, Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) of DPRK, leaves for the south side to attend their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone on January 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Korea Pool

According to pool reports from Panmunjeom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea offered to send a large delegation comprising athletes, observers, art performers, a cheering squad and journalists to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, which will run from February 9-25.

South Korea offered a temporary easing of sanctions if that were necessary to ensure the North Korean delegation’s visit, though it was not clear how that might be implemented. Separately, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said related discussions might be required with the United Nations Security Council, Reuters reported.

The South Korean side also proposed holding reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War for the Lunar New Year holiday, which falls during the Games, and inter-Korean military talks.

Head of North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon, Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) of DPRK, reaches out to shake hands with a South Korean official as he crosses the border to attend their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on January 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Korea Pool

Both sides agreed to reopen a west-coast military hotline that has been defunct since 2016, covering the Yellow Sea, the site of a number of naval clashes in recent years. That development follows the reopening of a civilian hotline last week.

“North Korea proposed resolving issues regarding inter-Korean ties through dialogue and negotiations for peace and unity on the peninsula,” Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung said in a briefing to reporters, prior to the release of the joint statement.

Only two North Korean athletes, a figure-skating duo, have qualified for Pyeongchang, but a South Korean television commentary on Tuesday  was rife with speculation about “wild card” invitations, and the International Olympic Committee is reportedly open to North Korea’s belated participation.

The North’s delegation will include a taekwondo squad, which will carry out joint demonstrations with South Korean taekwondo athletes during the Games, an informed source said, though that discipline is not part of the Winter Olympiad.

Senior officials from the two Koreas met, as scheduled, at 10am in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom inside the DMZ, with the North Koreans walking across the border; the talks were not held in the iconic blue huts that straddle the frontier in Panmunjeom, but in the more accommodating “Peace House” conference center on the South Korean side, which reportedly includes communications facilities back to the respective capitals.

Heading the South Korean delegation was Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon; the head of the North Korean delegation was his counterpart Ri Song-gwon. Both are highly experienced in inter-Korean issues. Sports officials were included in both delegations.

“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.”

After an early surprise – the North Korean delegation suggesting opening the talks to journalists – the discussions took place behind closed doors, with a break for lunch. Talks continued in the afternoon, then for a third session in the evening, indicating promising developments.

Earlier, a small demonstration had taken place in front of news cameras set up at the entrance to the checkpoint leading to the DMZ and Panmunjeom. The demonstrators demanded the reopening of the inter-Korean industrial zone in Kaesong, which married North Korean labor with South Korean capital. It was closed by Seoul in 2016, in protest against North Korea’s nuclear tests.

The discussions are the first high-level negotiations between the Koreas since 2015. The talks follow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent New Year’s message, during which he said 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. Seoul responded the following day, proposing inter-Korean negotiations – a long-held aim of the Moon government.

Although observers have warned that the North could be attempting to drive a wedge into the Seoul-Washington alliance with the talks, US President Donald Trump has endorsed them. “I very much want to see it work out … I am behind that 100 percent,” Trump told journalists. He had previously agreed to Moon’s suggestion to suspend military drills during the Games.

The United States appears to be dangling carrots and brandishing sticks toward the hardline regime. Trump and senior officials have repeatedly warned of military action, but the president himself has also signaled his willing to negotiate directly with the leader he refers to as “Little Rocket Man.”

Moon has made clear that he is against any war on the peninsula, but has cooperated with Seoul’s ally the United States on military drills, sanctions and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Drills are expected to continue after the conclusion of the Winter Paralympics, on March 18.

One North Korea watcher in Seoul was pleased at the outcome of the day’s negotiations. “This is an ice-breaking moment in inter-Korean relations,” said Choi Kang, vice-president of Seoul 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.”

American conservatives, however, were unimpressed by the urge to embrace North Korea.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Bruce Klinger wrote, in a report in The Daily Signal, that while apartheid-era South Africa had been banned from the Olympics, “in response to North Korea’s far more egregious human-rights violations – which the United Nations has ruled to be ‘crimes against humanity’ – the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate. Why the double standard?”

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