People look toward North Korea through a barbed-wire fence near the De-militarized Zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

North Korea has agreed to South Korea’s proposal for “high-level” inter-Korean talks at the truce village of Panmunjeom next Tuesday, Jan. 9, as a series of rapid rapprochement moves ahead of the Winter Olympics gain momentum.

The North Korean acceptance was delivered early Friday, the morning after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump agreed, during a late-night (Korea-time) phone call Thursday to suspend military exercises during the Winter Olympics, set for Pyeonchang, South Korea, in February.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry announced in a briefing Friday morning that North Korea had agreed to the talks, and the agenda would include how to improve inter-Korean ties and the North’s participation in the upcoming Games.

The development is the latest in a string of events which follows the North’s re-opening of an inter-Korean telephone hotline on Wednesday, the South’s proposal of talks on Tuesday, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s broadcast of a conciliatory New Year’s message on Monday.

Trump said yesterday that the South Korean and US militaries would “de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises.” Moon said that he would “closely consult” with the United States during upcoming inter-Korean talks. He added, “We are confident that South-North Korea dialogue helps create an atmosphere for dialogue between the US and North Korea on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.”

According to reports from the presidential Blue House in South Korea, the White House in Washington and newswires, the two spoke in a call requested by Moon late Thursday night, Korea-time. Trump also told Moon he would send a senior level delegation to the Olympics. Reuters reported it could include Trump’s high-profile daughter, Ivanka.

Prior to the call, the US President had taken credit for the apparent North Korean reversal in policy. “With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!” he tweeted.

Even though the two agreed to maintain maximum pressure on Pyongyang, the concession from Trump – whose military advisors had been wary about halting drills – is a boost for Moon, who has consistently held out for inter-Korean dialog since coming to power. The South Korean president suggested, in December, the suspension of winter drills during the Winter Games in February as a gesture toward Pyongyang.

Moon has also argued that tentative contacts at the Pyeongchang Olympics, which take place in mountainous eastern South Korea, close to the border with the North, could provide a springboard for broader inter-Korean talks. The Winter Olympics run from Feb. 5-29; the Winter Paralympics run from March 9-18.

Speaking after the Moon-Trump call, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said the delay in exercises was “a practical matter” – part of “the normal give and take,” and that drills would resume after the Paralympics end in March.

Spring, when the US and South Korea conduct a series of military drills in Korea, are always tense times on the peninsula. Pyeongyang routinely claims the exercises – which involve local South Korean troops, Korea-deployed US troops reinforced by US forces which rotate in for the drills, and small contingents from nations such as Australia and the United Kingdom – are preparations for an invasion. Seoul and Washington assert they are purely defensive in nature, but last year’s drills included forces tasked with “decapitating” North Korean leaders, and neutral observers have previously questioned their “defensive” focus.

With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apparently having made no headway in winning concessions from the United States in 2017, his surprise turn toward Seoul in his annual New Year’s broadcast has raised the eyebrows of some observers. They are concerned that Pyongyang’s apparent offer of inter-Korean rapprochement could be designed to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, on in the wider international community, which has approved United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

Those concerns were voiced in a rare speaking appearance at a Seoul university earlier Thursday – prior to the two presidents’ phone discussion – by General Vincent Brooks, who commands the 28,500-strong US forces in Korea.

Brooks mentioned that while “recent overtures are to be welcomed,” there was a risk that Pyongyang was engaging in a diplomatic ploy. Referring to the five nations that had taken part, along with North Korea, in currently dormant six-party talks – China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States – he said they should act together, Yonhap reported. Likening them to the fingers of a hand, Brooke said the countries were most effective “when operating close together and in harmony” – like a fist.

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