High-level officials from North and South Korea met at the Peace House at Panmunjom today and successfully concluded an agreement in principle that would enable North Korea’s full participation in the Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. North Korea decided to send a high-level delegation, Olympic committee delegation, athletes, cheering squad, cultural performance troupe, observation delegation, and press corps to the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. The two sides agreed to hold working-level talks to facilitate North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games. In order to do so, the South Korean government will have to suspend implementation of some UN Security Council sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea for its nuclear and missile development.
The atmosphere between the negotiating teams of the two sides appeared to be cordial and professional. Both sides also agreed to promote reconciliation by easing military tensions to establish a peaceful environment for the games. The North Koreans agreed to re-establish a military hotline to address potential frictions in the West Sea where the two Koreas share a common border. They also pledged to address outstanding issues in inter-Korean relations through dialogue and negotiations.
Today’s initial round of talks was confined to issues surrounding North Korea’s Olympic participation, but there were attempts to expand the agenda to broader Korean security issues. The South Korean side has proposed opening of talks next month on possible reunions of divided families, but the proposal has not yet been accepted by North Korea. The North Korean lead negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the Committee Reunification of the Country, objected to media reports indicating that South Korea’s lead negotiator, Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyun, called for North Korea to return to denuclearization talks, arguing that North Korean nuclear capabilities are only targeted at the United States, not at South Korea, China, or Russia.
South Korean lead negotiator Cho said that the North Korean delegation had acknowledged the U.S. and South Korean decision to delay military exercises until after the Olympics while requesting an additional delay. Cho indirectly acknowledged a general, but no detailed discussion of the status of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint complex in which South Korean companies provided capital and equipment while North Korea provided labor. That joint inter-Korean project had operated for over a decade until its closure in February of 2016 following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test.
By opening inter-Korean talks and securing North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, the Moon administration has taken a major step forward toward achieving an essential prerequisite for removing the pall cast by inter-Korean tensions over South Korea’s hosting of the Olympic games. North Korean cooperation to join the games as participants will be an enormously reassuring signal to athletes, officials, and spectators who might otherwise have hesitated to come to South Korea due to rising inter-Korean tensions. The talks themselves also serve as an unwelcome reminder both of North Korea’s capability to play the spoiler role, South Korea’s dependence on cooperation from North Korea to assert its accomplishments on the global stage, and the geopolitical fault lines that generate political risk around the Korean peninsula.
The re-reestablishment of inter-Korean dialogue, for the time being, also opens communication lines with a self-isolated North Korea that has no other reliable channels of communication in crisis with the outside world. But whether this opening can be exploited to promote peace and security beyond the term of the Olympics games themselves—by forestalling and reversing the resumption of a trajectory toward conflict between the United States and North Korea punctuated by the resumption of U.S.-ROK military exercises and resumption of North Korean missile tests—remains to be seen.