North Korea on Tuesday agreed to send athletes and cheerleaders to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea and to hold talks with Seoul to ease military tensions, in the most significant diplomatic breakthrough between the neighbouring countries in years.
The two sides came face to face for the first time since December 2015 at 10am in the Panmunjom “truce village” which straddles the heavily fortified border that has divided the North and South for six decades.
After a meeting that began jovially, the tentative thaw in relations now means that Pyongyang will allow athletes, supporters, cheerleaders, art performers and a taekwondo demonstration team to attend the February 9-25 Games in the ski resort of Pyeongchang.
The two nations, who are still technically at war, also pledged in a joint statement to negotiate further to deescalate military tensions and to restore a military hotline on the western peninsula that had been suspended for nearly two years.
After a year of sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula, the signs of a fragile détente, which arose unexpectedly after Kim Jong-un made conciliatory overtures in a New Year’s Day speech, have raised distant hopes of a possible international resolution over his nuclear weapons programme.
The meeting, with five veteran negotiators on each side, also discussed a potential reunion of families separated by the Korean War in the 1950s, with Seoul requesting this take place around the Lunar New Year of February 16.
North Korean delegation meets South Korean delegation
But the most significant progress was made in an agreement to “actively cooperate” in making a success of the Winter Olympics.
The rapprochement could see athletes from both Koreas walk together during the opening ceremony and Seoul has indicated it will consider temporarily suspending certain sanctions to ease the North’s participation.
While the inclusion of a cheering squad may have seemed like an odd negotiating priority, the role of cheerleaders, handpicked on the basis of their beauty and loyalty to the regime, has traditionally been an important political tool for North Korea during sports events.
Since 2002, Pyongyang has fully exploited the propaganda value of its most attractive young women, trying to captivate Southern sports fans with its so-called “squads of beauty” performing choreographed moves.
In February, it will also fall on North Korean ice-skating stars, Kim Ju-sik and Ryom Tae-ok, who earlier qualified for the Olympics but are not believed to be medal contenders, to help strengthen the diplomatic thaw.
But while the Olympics may present a turning point for diplomacy in the short term, the incremental moves towards easing military tensions could herald a more lasting solution for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The prospect of military talks were first raised by Seoul, the South Korean unification ministry confirmed.
“We expressed the need to promptly resume dialogue for peace settlement, including denuclearisation, and based on the mutual respect (the two Koreas) cooperate and stop activities that would raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” said unification vice minister Chun Hae-sung.
North Korea’s reaction, however, revealed that the two sides are still far from resolving their differences.
The North’s chief negotiator, Ri Son-gwon, known as a regime hardliner, expressed strong discontent over the mention of denuclearisation in the context of military discussions, warning that it would negatively impact inter-Korean ties.
“North Korea’s weapons are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, China or Russia,” said Mr Ri.
His statement appeared to confirm the scepticism of some experts that Pyongyang’s latest olive branch is intended to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and that the North may try to make unreasonable demands like a moratorium on joint US-South Korea military drills.
Despite ongoing reservations from some quarters that North Korea could try to use its ties with South Korea to undermine tough UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests, US President Donald Trump on Saturday called the fresh talks a “big start”.
Brian Hook, a senior advisor to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that message on Tuesday morning, telling reporters that “he [the president] hopes that positive development results from talks between the North and the South.”
But the US did not believe that the improvement of relations between the North and South could advance separately from the issue of denuclearisation, he added.
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“We remain focussed on our global pressure campaign. That campaign is designed to bring Kim Jong-un to the table for meaningful negotiations.”