North Korea has agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, the first notable breakthrough to come out of a face-to-face meeting Tuesday between the neighboring nations.
In talks, held at the border village of Panmunjom or “truce village,” in the Korean peninsula’s heavily fortified demilitarized zone, North Korea negotiators agreed to send a “high-level delegation” comprising athletes, a cheering squad, an art troupe, a visitors’ group, a Taekwondo demonstration team and a press corps, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters in Seoul.
The meeting, the first to be held between the two countries in more than two years, began as many potentially awkward encounters do: with small talk about the weather.
“Entire rivers and mountains are frozen,” Ri Son Gwon, the chief North Korean negotiator, told reporters. “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that compared to nature’s weather, the inter-Korean relationship is even more frozen.”
The five-member North Korean delegation, dressed in fitted western-style dark suits and polished dress shoes, arrived at the border via motorcade shortly before 9:30 a.m. Seoul time, before making the short walk across the military demarcation line into the South Korean side of Panmunjom.
Once inside, Ri was joined by his South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. The two men then entered the talks side-by-side at 10 a.m. Seoul time. A bit more than an hour later, representatives from Seoul and Pyongyang broke for lunch.
In the South Korean capital, journalists from the world’s media gathered at the Unification Ministry, to receive periodic updates as the meeting progressed.
South Korea floats possibility of peace talks
In addition to the Olympic agreement, the negotiating teams discussed the possibility the two countries conduct military talks to prevent accidental conflict, the South Korean Unification Ministry said.
“We expressed the need to promptly resume dialogue for peace settlement, including denuclearization, and based on the mutual respect (the two Koreas) cooperate and stop activities that would raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Chun said.
South Korean negotiators also floated organizing another round of reunifications for families separated during the Korean War — which is technically still ongoing, as no formal peace treaty has been signed.
Both Moon and Kim were able to listen to the discussions in real time, and each had a hotline at their disposal, direct to the Peace House.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Relations in Seoul, said the final two proposals were presented to the North Koreans last year, but no headway was made.
“South Korea has been working at this for a long time,” he said. “Seoul already proposed those things: let’s get our militaries talking and lets reunite families. Technically, North Korea really never said no.”
A turbulent year
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated in 2017, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un overseeing significant advancements in Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile technologies.
Prior to Tuesday’s negotiations, analysts and Korea watchers had advised against getting too excited about these talks.
“I think prudence dictates that we be very cautious about these talks,” said Evans Revere, a former US diplomat in South Korea. “We’ve been down this road before … in almost every instance, ultimately we’ve been disappointed.”
Some expressed a sense of guarded optimism in the fact the two sides were actually sitting down and talking.
“It’s a lot better than having zero dialogue,” said Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
In his speech last week, Kim appeared to extend a peace offering to his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. The North Korean leader said he was willing to send a delegation to the quadrennial games taking place in the winter resort city of Pyeongchang in February.
The only North Koreans to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games are the figure skating pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik.
However, the North Korean National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline to accept their spot.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the Games, has welcomed talks between the Koreas. In a statement provided to CNN last week, the committee said it would keep open its invitation for a North Korean delegation to participate and “will take the final decision in due time.”
Last week, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry said he believed North Korea and the IOC would hold talks in the coming days.
Despite climate and terrain favorable for participating in cold-weather sports, North Korea hasn’t sent a delegation the Winter Olympics since 1992 (the Winter and Summer Games were hosted in the same year until 1994).
Pyongyang boycotted the 1988 summer Games in Seoul after efforts to jointly host the event with the South collapsed. North Korea, along with a handful of other allies of the USSR, also boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in response to the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics.
Since the 1988 Games, North Korea has participated in every Summer Olympics. They took home seven medals during the Rio Games in 2016.
In his speech, Kim called the Pyeongchang Games an “auspicious event” and said his country “earnestly wished” for them to be a success.
Kim’s speech touched off events that led to Tuesday’s high-level meeting, which is taking place at the Peace House in the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom. Panmunjom is the only part of the 250 kilometer (160 mile), heavily fortified demilitarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face.