South Korea has proposed holding high-level talks with North Korea next week, a day after the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said he was prepared to send a delegation of athletes to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang.
In a cautious indication of progress in inter-Korean relations after a year of tensions over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile programme, South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, said the offer reiterated “our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place, and in any form”.
Cho proposed that the two Koreas meet next Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom, where they last held high-level talks in December 2015.
“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games, as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties,” Cho told reporters in Seoul, according to Yonhap news agency.
“We think that the suspended inter-Korean communication channels should be immediately restored. We propose that the two Koreas discuss details of talks including agenda items and the composition of delegations … at the truce village.”
North Korea has yet to respond to the offer, and the US president, Donald Trump, said on Tuesday he was withholding judgement on the offer to talk.
“Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!” Trump wrote in a tweet.
The Pyeongchang Games will be held 50 miles (80km) south of the heavily armed border that has separated the two Koreas since their three-year conflict ended in a truce in 1953.
In his New Year’s Day address on Monday, Kim said he hoped the Olympics would be a success and offered to send a delegation to Pyeongchang.
He said the Games would be “a good opportunity to display the status of the Korean nation, and we sincerely wish that the event will be held with good results”, adding: “We are prepared to take various steps, including the dispatch of a delegation.”
The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, a liberal who favours engagement with Pyongyang, has encouraged North Korea’s participation in the Games, believing its presence could lower tensions on the peninsula.
Moon said on Tuesday that Kim’s conciliatory tone was a “positive response” to Seoul’s desire to see the Pyeongchang Games become a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace”.
He added, however, that any Olympics discussions must proceed alongside talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, three months after the regime conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
“The improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear programme,” Moon said at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Some analysts believe Kim is attempting to drive a wedge between Moon and Trump, who has warned that he is considering all options, including military action, to address the threat from North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Evans Revere, a former senior US diplomat who took part in unofficial talks with North Korean officials last year, said Pyongyang was likely to attempt to win concessions in exchange for taking part in the Olympics.
“It is hard to imagine Seoul falling for this,” Revere said, noting that Kim’s speech made clear he expected North Korea to be regarded as a bona fide nuclear state.
“Implicit in Kim Jong-un’s speech is a willingness to engage with others, including the United States, on the basis of their acceptance of the ‘reality’ of North Korea’s permanent nuclear status,” he added. “That’s not a basis on which the United States is prepared to engage.”
It is not clear what form North Korean participation in the Games would take. The figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-Sik were the country’s only athletes to qualify for Pyeongchang, but missed their event’s registration deadline at the end of October.
Reports said the pair could still be invited to compete by the International Olympic Committee.