On Tuesday, the isolationist North Korean regime agreed to hold a diplomatic meeting with their neighbor South Korea, in light of the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea. Tuesday’s meeting was the first South-North Korea talks in over two years.
On the North Korean side, the meeting was attended by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), led by Ri Son-gwon, who chairs the committee, while the South Korean delegation was headed by Cho Myoung-gyon, the Minister of Unification.
The meeting was held at the Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea. The Panmunjeom is the building where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. This agreement, was a truce, not a treaty, so rather than ending the Korean War, it technically only paused hostilities, leading to today’s tense military situation.
Although the coming Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea was the initial reason for the South-North Korea talks, more serious issues were discussed. A joint statement issued by both parties read, “The South and the North agreed to collaborate in facilitating reconciliation and unity by easing military tension, and to establish a peaceful environment.”
One Korea or Two Nations?
Leading up to the South-North Korea talks, North Korea’s media, tightly controlled by the government, was busy pushing the “one Korean Nation” narrative. Although most people can’t remember a time when the Koreas weren’t divided, hostile relations between the two nations was not always the norm. Actually, the idea of a North and South Korea was invented by international agreements that the Koreans were not a party to.
Korea had been subjected to Japanese imperial rule from 1910 until 1945. Following Japan’s loss of power and status after their defeat in World War II, the parties to the 1945 Potsdam Conference decided that the Korean Peninsula should be partitioned. The US military planners proposed that Korea should be split in half at the now infamous 38th parallel, as a means to prevent the spread of Soviet communism. The partition resulted in UN supervised elections in the South and the election of a communist leader chosen by Joseph Stalin in the North.
The division eventually led to the Korean War (1950-1953) which was never exactly resolved. Today, Korean diplomats must wrestle with the fallout of this history. At Tuesday’s South-North Korea talks, both parties agreed that Koreans must lead efforts to resolve issues on the peninsula. This would be a different perspective from what occurred during the Potsdam Conference, which broke families apart across the 38th parallel, trapping some in a Stalinist nightmare. North Korean propaganda blames the US for dividing families, and the Korean peninsula in general.
Today’s delegation is said to have discussed the reunification of families across the DMZ, but no such statements officially made their way into the joint press release.
Not All Smooth Sailing
The communist delegation complained about media portrayals of North Korea in the South, particularly in regards to their nuclear arsenal. During the South-North Korea talks, Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the CPRC, insisted that North Korea’s weapons do not serve as a threat to their “compatriots” in the South, echoing narrative of unification seen in the North Korean media recently,“All of our state-of-the-art strategic weapons like atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles are targeting the United States, not our compatriots.” The US is, however, one of South Korea’s strongest allies and trade partners. Ri’s statement at the South-North Korea talks seems to be inconsistent with the official claim that North Korea’s missile program is only for self defense.
The North Korean delegation was offended, expressing “strong discontent” that the South Korean delegation had mentioned the possibility of denuclearization at all, while the North also expressed their displeasure that South Korea will be reestablishing a key military communication channel, the West Sea military hotline.
Some American sources worry that the South-North Korea talks could edge the US out of their diplomatic role, although tens of thousands of US troops are still deployed in South Korea.
Before the talks had commenced, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had insisted that the diplomatic meeting would revolve only around the upcoming Olympics and did not express confidence that the South-North Korea talks would lead anywhere. According to the joint statement released by the two Korean delegations, the talks had a much farther reach than athletics.
It seems that American figures are hesitant to accept the South-North Korea talks as successful. In an interview with the Associated Press, Secretary of State Tillerson said, “Is this the beginning of something? I think it’s premature.” President Trump echoed these hesitations in a tweet, “Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. … Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see.”
However, the joint statement issued by the North and South delegations hints at potential collaboration in the future, “The South and the North agreed on the need to ease military tensions and to hold military talks to resolve the issue.”
Critics of US President Donald Trump see the talks between the two Korean states as indicating that the Koreans do not want or need US intervention in resolving their differences. President Trump disagrees, tweeting, “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.”
In Tuesday’s South-North Korea talks, North Korea confirmed that they will be sending athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics, as well as cultural performers, an Olympic delegation, spectators, and press. Reports have long circulated that the North Korean regime uses the Olympics and other major sporting events as propaganda tools. The government, media, and artists, create propaganda feigning victories at major events like the World Cup and the Olympics. It is unclear what kind of protocols the North Korean regime puts its athletes through prior to and following international competition.