North and South Korea began their first official talks in more than two years on Tuesday, focussing on the forthcoming Winter Olympics after months of tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The talks in Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, came after the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un indicated in his New Year’s speech that he could send a delegation to next month’s Games in Pyeongchang in the South.
Seoul responded with an offer of a high-level dialogue, and last week the hotline between the neighbours was restored after being suspended for almost two years.
Seoul’s five-member delegation travelled to Panmunjom in a convoy of vehicles, passing a group of well-wishers holding a banner at a checkpoint leading towards the DMZ.
Before leaving Seoul the delegation’s leader, Unification Minister Cho Myung-Gyun, said the two sides would focus on the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games but the agenda would also include ways to thaw frosty ties.
“We will do our best to ensure that the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics will take place as a peace festival and that this meeting will serve as the first step for improving South-North ties”, he added.
The Unification Ministry said the North’s delegation crossed the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom on foot for the talks, which are being held in the Peace House, a building on the southern side of the zone.
Looking businesslike, Cho and Ri shook hands at the entrance to the Peace House and again across the table before starting their talks, pictures showed.
In accordance with standard practice in the North, Ri wore a badge on his left lapel bearing an image of the country’s founding father Kim Il-Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il. Cho also wore a lapel badge, depicting the South Korean flag.
Seoul has been keen to proclaim the Games in Pyeongchang, just 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the DMZ, as a “peace Olympics” in the wake of missile and nuclear tests by the North — but it needs Pyongyang to attend to make the description meaningful.
If the North agrees, one of the top agenda items will be whether the two Koreas’ sportspeople make joint entrances to the opening and closing ceremonies, as they did for Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.
The size and membership of the North Korean delegation and their accommodation — widely expected to be paid for by Seoul — will also be discussed.
The group may stay on a cruise ship in Sokcho, about an hour’s drive from the Olympic venue — which would enable their movements to be closely monitored and controlled.
With only two winter sports athletes qualified, North Korea is likely to bolster its presence by sending significant numbers of cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Games, which run from February 9 to 25, analysts say.
Hundreds of young, female North Korean cheerleaders have created a buzz at three previous international sporting events in the South.
“For North Korea to achieve its desired effects and to attract attention, it will have to dispatch its beauty cheering squad,” said An Chan-Il, a defector-turned-researcher who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies.
South Korean reports have suggested the North could send a high-level delegation to the Games including Kim’s younger sister Yo-Jong, who is a senior member of the ruling Workers’ Party.
‘Beyond the Olympics’
Cho, the top South Korean official in charge of relations with the North, is a veteran negotiator in inter-Korean affairs.
He has participated in talks with North Korea since the 1990s, including their last summit in 2007.
Pyongyang’s chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon has a similar role as head of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea.
Ri has mostly taken part in military talks with the South and is known for angrily storming out of one meeting within minutes, denying Pyongyang’s role in the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship.
As well as the Olympics, the two sides could bring up their own priority issues, which analysts say will be much more challenging.
South Korea wants to discuss the resumption of family reunions but Pyongyang snubbed previous offers, saying it will not consider further reunions unless several of its citizens are returned by the South.
The North will probably want to discuss a permanent end to large-scale annual military drills between Seoul and Washington.
The United States and South Korea agreed last week to delay the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises until after the Games, apparently to help ease nerves.
US President Donald Trump said at the weekend he hoped the rare talks between the two Koreas would go “beyond the Olympics” and that Washington could join the process at a later stage.
But US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that there was “no turnaround” in the US stance, reiterating that the North must stop nuclear tests for talks with Washington.