An agreement for North Korea to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in the South signals a step change in relations, analysts say, but will do little to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities.
The North and South on Tuesday held their first official dialogue in more than two years, agreeing that Pyongyang would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics and promising further high-level talks.
The meeting came after months of confrontation over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, with both parties seeking to dial down tensions.
“Both sides wanted to win and they got it,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Seoul and Olympic organizers have been keen for Pyongyang — which boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in South Korea’s capital — to take part in what they have repeatedly proclaimed as a “peace Olympics” in Pyeongchang.
But the North gave no sign it would do so until leader Kim Jong-Un’s New Year speech. It pursued its banned weapons programmes in defiance of United Nations sanctions, launched missiles it says are capable of reaching the U.S., and staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games is a tacit guarantee that it will refrain from such provocations during February and March, when the Olympics and Paralympics are held.
Seoul and Washington also agreed earlier to delay their annual joint military drills — which Pyongyang views as rehearsals for an invasion — until after the events.
Go Myong-Hyun, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said North Korea secured so-called “strategic composure” — shelter from a possible U.S. military strike which has repeatedly been described as an “option on the table” by Trump administration officials.
“Washington can’t take any military action against the North during inter-Korean talks because it doesn’t want to be blamed for any hiccups,” Go said.
But what happens when the lights are turned off at Pyeongchang and geopolitics returns to normal on the peninsula?
“Whether this opening can be exploited to promote peace and security beyond the term of the Olympics games themselves… remains to be seen,” wrote Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite a handful of agreements reached Tuesday, North Korea made no promises on its nuclear and missile programmes and its chief delegate lashed out when the issue was raised.
Ri Son-Gwon told South Korean journalists that denuclearization was not an issue for the two Koreas to discuss, saying: “The target of all our nuclear and hydrogen bombs and ICBMs and all other sophisticated weapons is the U.S.“
There were “many problems” to settle between the two sides, he added, warning of “unexpected obstacles” down the road.
“(You’ve) got to have a longer game plan and that needs to be happening right now because otherwise, once the Olympics ends, we’re right back to square one,” said Delury.
Otherwise, “we’re back to, week by week, a missile test in North Korea, a tweet from the White House and situation getting worse and worse.”
Analysts say South Korea could find itself in a tight spot, sandwiched between its desire to improve ties with Pyongyang and to work with Washington to denuclearize the North.
The United States has continuously stressed that the talks should lead to efforts for the North’s complete and verifiable denuclearization.
“We all know the motive behind North Korea’s sudden willingness to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics,” said an editorial in South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
“It is to divide the South Korean government, which wants inter-Korean talks, and the U.S. government, which wants the denuclearization of the North,” it said.
President Moon Jae-In has long supported engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over banned weapons programmes that have alarmed the U.S. and the global community, and have seen Pyongyang subjected to multiple sets of UN sanctions.
But the U.S. has said North Korea must stop nuclear tests in order for negotiations with Washington to take place.
“At some point, South Korea will face a dilemma between pushing ahead with inter-Korean ties or joining Washington’s efforts to dismantle the North’s nuclear programmes,” said Kim Hyun-Wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
Doveish President Moon may not easily give up on the progress with Pyongyang, Kim said, “which is bound to create noise in the alliance”.
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