North Korea: A new opportunity

It is to be hoped these talks can secure North Korean participation in the forthcoming Olympics so that wider contacts are made possible

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a New Year’s Day speech in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. Photograph: KCNA/via REUTERS

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a New Year’s Day speech in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. Photograph: KCNA/via REUTERS

 

The decision by North and South Korea to meet this week for discussions on the Winter Olympic Games is a welcome sign that a logic of de-escalation is still possible even after the dangerous increase of tension between them in recent months.

A constructive gesture by President Donald Trump in agreeing to postpone annual US-South Korean military exercises during the games despite his highly provocative exchanges with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over that country’s nuclear arms programme helped make these talks possible. Kim’s offer of talks with South Korea in his New Year message was followed by reopening of the communications hotline between the two states. President Moon Jae-in took the necessary care to consult Trump about the talks but is determined to make the most of this opportunity, closed off by last year’s escalations of nuclear missile tests and retaliatory international sanctions. South Korea has the deepest existential interest in exploring ways to head these tensions off towards renewed political and diplomatic dialogue and negotiations.

Although hawks in the Trump administration worry about North Korea driving a wedge between the US and South Korea and warn Moon against solo efforts to expand these talks beyond the Olympics into strategic issues, he is right to have both ends in view. North Korea’s rapid development of a nuclear armoury is rooted in the historical insecurity of its regime confronted with US power, reinforced by economic underdevelopment and isolation.Moon believes the key to better intra-Korean relations and eventual military de-escalation would be to explore a bargain linking these two conditions. He has a mandate to pursue them from his election last year, but has been careful not to antagonise Trump too much on that score.

It is to be hoped these talks can secure North Korean participation in the forthcoming Olympics so that wider contacts are made possible. The issues involved are complex and regional in nature. China and Japan also have a central interest in seeing such a diplomatic evolution. Those in the Trump administration seeking to avoid a purely sanctions and military way through this crisis should encourage this potential alternative route. All concerned should concentrate on finding ways to keep it on track.

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