Top officials from North and South Korea will hold their first official dialogue in more than two years on Tuesday after months of high tensions over Pyongyang’s weapons ambitions.
The long-stalled talks come after the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un indicated in his New Year’s speech that Pyongyang was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Games 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.
The talks at Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, will largely focus on the North’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in the South.
Seoul has been keen to proclaim the event in Pyeongchang, just 80 kilometres south of the DMZ, a “peace Olympics” in the wake of ICBM and nuclear tests by the North — but it needs the North 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 Torino.
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 in 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 a handful of qualified winter sports athletes, analysts say North Korea is likely to send significant numbers of cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Games, which run from February 9 to 25.
Hundreds of young, good-looking 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’ –
For Tuesday’s talks, South Korea’s five-member delegation will be led by Unification Minister Cho Myong-Gyun, the country’s top official for relations with the North.
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.
The regular joint drills have been criticised by some as adding to regional tensions. Beijing and Moscow have both called for them to be suspended.
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.