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South-North Korea Border Talks Might Follow Kim Jong Un’s Recent Overture

South Korean officials have responded to a recent overture from North Korea, proposing that talks between high-level officials be held on the two countries’ borders as early as next week.

By Michael Day (North-South Korean border) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In his traditional New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong Un called for tensions on the Koran peninsula to be reduced and insinuated North Korea’s possible participation in next month’s Winter Olympic Games, Reuters reported.

With the Winter Olympic Games being held in Pyeongchang County, less than 60 miles away from the North Korean border, South Korea has been eager to involve the North in order to ensure the Games are not disrupted by Kim Jong Un’s frequent nuclear and missile tests. According to Reuters, South Korea insisting on including the reclusive North in the games is also a way of re-establishing dialogue.

Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day declaration saw the dictator praising the country’s nuclear capability and announcing the mass production of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles in 2018. Despite the very threatening tone of his address, he called for an urgent South-North Korea border talks in the wake of next month’s Winter Olympics Games.

According to the New York Times, Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea’s point man on the North, proposed that the Korean governments hold their meeting next Tuesday in Panmunjom, a village straddling the border north of Seoul. Speaking at a news conference earlier this week, Mr. Cho said that he hopes the two sides “sit down for frank talks.”

If Kim Jong Un was to respond positively, the ensuing South-North Korea border talks would be the first official dialogue the two neighboring countries held in more than two years. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his government hoping that next week’s talks will ease years of tensions, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is bound to be discussed at the talks.

Talks with North Korea could strain relations between Seoul and Washington

Sensing the tension that has been simmering between U.S. President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong Un might have deliberately chosen the first days of 2018 for his recent overture to the South. President Moon has long argued for diplomatic talks with the North and has never openly supported the U.S. imposed sanctions. President Trump, however, has made pressuring North Korea one of his administration’s main preoccupations.

The New York Times reported on President Moon angering Trump in recent months by suggesting he held a “veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program.” With North Korean media portraying South Korean President Moon as an “American puppet,” Kim Jong Un has largely ignored him until now.

As President Moon’s administration has welcomed Kim Jong Un’s calls for dialogue, it seems that Pyongyang has managed, once again, to step on Washington’s toes. “We have already expressed our willingness to engage in a dialogue with North Korea at any time, in any place and in any format, as long as both sides can discuss restoring their relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula,” a presidential spokesman, Park Soo-hyun, said to the New York Times.

President Trump addressed the issue in a tweet earlier on Tuesday, saying “Sanctions and “other” pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

Despite the negative response Kim Jong Un’s latest overture has gotten in Washington, some experts on the topic see the recent turn of events as a positive thing. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, believes that the ensuing South-North Korea border talks show that North Korea is ready to work on resolving the tensions. “After getting nowhere with the Americans, North Korea is now trying to start talks with South Korea first and then use that as a channel to start a dialogue with the United States,” he said in a report recently published by the New York Times.

South-North Korea border talks to take place on a defunct hotline

With both Koreas agreeing that the ensuing border talks will take place at Panmunjom, it’s most likely that the actual dialogue will be held on a now-defunct hotline.

Panmunjom, a village just north of the de facto border between South and North Korea, has long been the two countries’ only contact point. Until 2016, both sides have exchanged messages through a telephone hotline located in the Joint Security Area. However, as President Moon Jae-in’s conservative predecessor, the impeached President Park Geun-hye, shut down a joint industrial complex in the region, the hotline had fallen out of use.

According to Reuters, Mr. Cho urged the North to restore the hotline so that both sides could discuss the agenda for the high-level talks, as a face-to-face meeting is still highly unlikely to happen. December 2015 saw the last high-level dialogue between the two countries.

President Moon has addressed the recent turn of events earlier on Tuesday and instructed his cabinet to move “swiftly” towards opening a dialogue with Pyongyang.

When asked about Kim Jong Un’s offer to open South-North Korea border talks, Mr. Moon said: “I appreciate and welcome the North’s positive response to our proposal that the Pyeongchang Olympics should be used as a turning point in improving South-North relations and promoting peace.”

Mr. Moon, a long proponent of using the diplomatic route to solve the tensions between Seoul and the reclusive North, has repeatedly urged both North Korea, as well as the international community, for Pyongyang to join the Pyeongchang Olympics. Reuters reported on Mr. Moon stating that Pyongyang’s participation in the games would make the country more engaged in the South-North Korea border talks.

However, with South Korea’s Unification Ministry stating that Kim Jong Un’s latest overture was not a step towards reconciliation, but an “exit” from the harsh sanctions imposed by the U.S., it has become difficult to predict how fruitful next week’s South-North Korea border talks will actually be.