On Tuesday, for the first time in two years, North and South Korea held high-level talks in the Demilitarized Zone. The main subject was North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea (February 9–25), but the implications for a broader dialogue were obvious.
While hawkish critics fear the talks are a “trap” or “wedge” that could divide South Korea from the United States, the talks represent a welcome step back from the nuclear brink. The South Koreans seem perfectly capable of achieving their goal of preventing a war on the peninsula while maintaining their strong military alliance with the United States.
Indeed, President Donald Trump has endorsed the talks in a series of tweets and statements, just days after his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, mocked the idea. “We don’t think we need a Band-Aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture,” she said on January 2, a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had offered to talk to South Korea in a surprisingly conciliatory New Year’s Day address.
Trump initially agreed with Haley, raising the stakes with a bizarre tweet: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” The message raised serious concerns about his mental stability, now at white-hot intensity from the revelations in Michael Wolf’s new book, Fire and Fury, named after Trump’s famous threat last year of a nuclear attack on North Korea.
But Trump shifted his tone, endorsing the talks in a January 4 tweet, even claiming credit for them. “Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!”
The talks have shown immediate progress. As of right now, North Korea has agreed to send a figure-skating pair to the games, and the International Olympic Committee extended the deadline for the registration of these athletes in an effort to support the inter-Korean dialogue. The North and South Korean teams will march together in the opening ceremonies. This agreement comes just days after the North and South reestablished a hotline between the two nations to prevent military misunderstandings and miscalculations, and the United States agreed to the South’s request to reschedule two large joint military exercises until April, after the Olympics.
The talks will continue for a second day on Wednesday, led by veteran negotiators. To lead its delegation, North Korea sent Ri Son-gwon, who serves as chairman of the “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.” South Korea sent Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. Both sides also included vice-minister-level officials from their respective Unification Ministries. The significance of this, according to South Korean news outlets, may be to discuss issues related to reopening tourism in North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, the Kaesong Industrial Complex and family reunions. The diplomats on both sides have had extensive experience negotiating on these issues. They are not new to the game.
Despite rising concerns among U.S. hawks (who seem to compare all negotiations to Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich), several key U.S. officials say they are not opposed to the inter-Korean talks. On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the talks could be a “vehicle through which [the North Koreans] would like to tell us that they would like to have some discussions.” Trump himself weighed in again on Sunday: “Right now, they’re talking Olympics. It’s a start. It’s a big start.”
In the face of alliance-splitting anxiety, President Moon Jae-in emphasized on Friday, “I won’t stand too weak in front of North Korea only to gain a dialogue opportunity like we did in the past.” Moon, who was elected on the heels of the conservative President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, has pledged to take a more engaging and conciliatory approach to North Korea.
The last progressive South Korean president to share that view was Roh Moo-hyun (2003–8), who also happened to be constrained by a conservative U.S. administration under President George W. Bush. Roh was constantly undermined by hawkish officials in Bush’s administration, including UN Ambassador John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Similar hawkish officials in this administration may be attempting to undermine these talks, leaking stories to the press about plans for possibly imminent, so-called “bloody-nose” military strikes on North Korea. Officials hope that they could launch “a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior,” without North Korea striking back. Most analysts consider it highly improbable that Kim, dependent on the military’s backing for his rule, could suffer the humiliation of a U.S. strike without responding forcefully and perhaps massively.
Such talk of U.S. military action may be the real “wedge” in the U.S.-ROK alliance. President Moon already rates the risk of a U.S. strike as an equal threat to a North Korean attack. “We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike,” he said in November.
As doubts about the mental stability of President Trump grow, Moon, and other world leaders, may seek to make their own diplomatic accommodations rather than trust an increasingly shaky American leadership.
Thus, the current talks represent something potentially much greater than a joint athletic team, friendly photos and a two-month “Olympic Truce.” North Korean participation in the Olympics would obviously benefit the North by providing possible concessions from the South and an international platform to raise its “peace-loving” status. But even more, this breakthrough represents the first of many steps toward an improvement in North-South relations that may, following the Olympics, pave the way for negotiations related to the North’s nuclear and missile program.
For now, the goal should be to nurture this moment of deescalation and support the South. The topic of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is off the table until the United States is in the room. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis stressed on Friday, “This is simply South and North Korea, and so the right countries aren’t in the room to go further.”
The joint military exercises have only been rescheduled for April, not suspended. It would be dangerous to presume that Washington will agree to a “freeze-for-freeze” deal (to suspend North Korea tests and U.S.–South Korean exercises) until there are direct U.S.–North Korea talks. If North Korea is serious about pursuing a deal that involves some modification of the joint military exercises, it will have to refrain from further missile and nuclear tests, and South Korea will have to insist that the United States be brought into the room for those discussions.
Whether the United States enters the room once invited, and whether this diplomatic moment can be extended into a genuine diplomatic solution to the most serious nuclear crisis in the world, depends, unfortunately, on the mercurial temperament and political fortunes of the most unpredictable president in American history.