North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met senior South Korean officials for a four-hour dinner on Monday evening, the first time he has met South Korean officials since taking power in 2011.
North Korean state media on Tuesday described the visit of South Korean envoys as “satisfactory.” The dinner included discussions about “easing the acute military tensions on the Korean peninsula” and activating a range of dialogue channels and contacts. Media added that Kim seeks to “write a new history of national reunification.”
However, it is not yet clear if the key issue of North Korea’s willingness to discuss steps toward denuclearization was discussed. A further meeting between officials from North and South is expected today.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s National Security Director, Chung Eui-yong, is leading a ten-member delegation to Pyongyang. It is the first major South-to-North diplomatic deploymeny since the sister of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jo-yong, invited Moon to meet her brother during her visit to the South last month.
That invitation took place amid moves toward inter-Korean rapprochement at what Moon has dubbed “The Peace Olympics” – the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which started on February 9 and will end with the closing of the Winter Paralympics on 18 March. Those moves included the dispatch, by Pyongyang, of the first-ever member of North Korea’s Kim clan to visit South Korea, and also of a senior general.
The Southern delegation had hoped to meet with Kim himself – but the meeting had not been guaranteed.
“I will certainly deliver President Moon’s firm resolve to achieve a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and genuine and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Chung said at a press conference before departure on Monday, according to agencies. He said he would try to find ways to restart direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington – a key Moon objective.
Chung’s 10-member delegation includes National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Vice-Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung. After their two-day trip to the North, they will visit Washington DC to brief US officials.
Last Thursday, Moon told US President Donald Trump in a telephone call that he was preparing to send an envoy to the North.
On Saturday, in Washington, Trump told reporters he knows North Korea wants to talk, but said the country would have to “de-nuke.” It is not clear whether Trump intended discussion of the issue to be a pre-condition of talks taking place or an end-goal. He added: “Let’s see what happens.”
While North Korea created good political vibes in South Korea last month by deploying athletes, an orchestra and cheerleaders during the Games, it remains to be seen whether the regime is willing even to discuss its nuclear programs, in which it has invested massive amounts of scarce capital and from which it has reaped increasing international isolation and UN Security Council sanctions.
In the first North-South meeting held prior to the Olympics, the North Korean delegation reacted angrily when the South Korean side raised the issue of denuclearization.
The Winter Olympics have offered a breathing space following sky-high peninsular tensions prompted last year by Pyongyang’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic with the capability to hit anywhere in the continental US, and by unusually strong words from Washington. Various signals have also indicated Washington may be preparing some kind of limited military strike on North Korea to attenuate its strategic nuclear capabilities.
South Korean-US military drills are expected to resume soon after the Winter Paralympics end – drills which Pyongyang customarily responds to with bellicose rhetoric, making spring the tensest time on the Korean calendar.