South Korea is expected to focus on North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics, while seeking to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula during Tuesday’s (Jan 9) inter-Korean meeting.
Last week, North Korea accepted South Korea’s offer to hold their first high-level talks in more than two years. The meeting will take place at 10am on Tuesday at the truce village of Panmunjeom near the border after the North Korean delegates cross the military demarcation line around 9.30am, according to the Unification Ministry.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said on Monday (Jan 8) that the talks will be mainly centred on the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics.
“Basically, the two sides will focus on the Olympics. When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions,” Mr Cho told a group of reporters outside Seoul Government Complex.
The talks will also cover “issues of mutual concern”, including Seoul’s “July proposal”, the ministry spokesman Baik Tae Hyun said during a regular press briefing.
Pyongyang has been silent on Seoul’s proposal in July 2017 to hold military talks and a separate Red Cross meeting to discuss reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Despite South Korea’s announcement that the talks on Tuesday will be focused on the Winter Games and thawing ties, there are concerns that North Korea may use the opportunity to suspend the joint South Korea-US military drills and halt deployment of US strategic military assets.
Officials in both the United States and South Korea have expressed worries that the North’s rare overture was aimed at “driving a wedge” between South Korea and the US, but analysts here say that North Korea is also treading carefully.
“North Korea is likely to bring up issues focused on its participation in the PyeongChang Olympics for now, because its leader Kim Jong Un gave what could be viewed as a guideline during his New Year’s address. This is why the Olympics will also be a key issue for the North Korean delegates,” professor Lee Woo Young at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul told The Korea Herald.
“But at the same time, its mention of the current situation surrounding inter-Korean ties and the Peninsula during the talks could be aimed at establishing a foundation for smoother talks in the future, addressing US policies and the South Korea-US alliance,” added Prof Lee.
North Korea on Monday launched another criticism against the US, saying that it is “violently infringing upon other countries’ sovereignty” and “slaughtering peaceful residents”.
The article released by the Rodong Sinmun, the North’s state-run newspaper, threw cold water on US President Donald Trump’s remarks on Saturday expressing willingness to talk directly with the North Korean leader.
On the revival of the joint industrial complex near the border and cross-border tours to Mount Kumkang, Prof Lee said the two issues are too sensitive to be discussed at the moment since they could be in direct violation of the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Both sides are also expected to refrain from raising other sensitive issues such as North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy corvette, in 2010. Mr Ri Son Gwon, Mr Cho’s counterpart at Tuesday’s talks, had flatly denied North Korea’s involvement in the incident during a cross-border military talk that took place after the corvette’s sinking.
The Unification Ministry’s Mr Baik declined to elaborate on whether Seoul could raise North Korea’s 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship during Tuesday’s meeting.
Mr Cho will lead a five-member delegation in negotiating with Mr Ri, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country. The committee is the North’s state agency handling inter-Korean affairs.
Both delegations will have five members who are key officials in charge of inter-Korean affairs and the organisation of the Winter Games.
Mr Ri, who has a military background, is viewed as a right-hand man of Mr Kim Yong Chol, head of the ruling party’s United Front Department and a former chief of the North’s reconnaissance bureau.
Mr Kim is suspected of being a key player in orchestrating the attack on the Cheonan and the bombing of a South Korean island near the maritime border that closely followed.
The liberal Moon Jae In government in the South has been seeking to alleviate heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula through restoration of dialogue channels with the North. It has also reiterated talks in drawing a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s ongoing missile and nuclear provocations and ultimately bringing about its denuclearisation.