Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - Page 1 News List

South proposes high-level talks with Pyongyang

AFP, SEOUL

Children sit next to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics’ official mascots — Soohorang the white tiger for the Olympics and Bandabi the black bear for the Paralympics — in Seoul yesterday.

Photo: AP

South Korea yesterday proposed high-level talks with Pyongyang to be held on Tuesday next week, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for better relations and said his nation might attend next month’s Winter Olympics.

Kim used his annual new year address to warn he has a “nuclear button” on his table, but sweetened his remarks by expressing an interest in dialogue and taking part in the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea next month.

South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon told a news conference that Seoul was “reiterating our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place in any form.”

“The government proposes to hold high-level government talks with North Korea on Jan. 9 at the Peace House in Panmunjom,” Cho said, referring to a truce village on the border. “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.”

“Just the fact that they are meeting will be meaningful, because it signals an attempt on both sides to improve relations,” Dongguk University political science professor Koh Yu-Hwan said.

However, once they sit down, the North could put Seoul in a difficult position by making unacceptable demands such as an end to its annual joint military drills with the US, Koh added.

“What North Korea is trying to do is re-establish its relations as a nuclear state [with Seoul]. The South’s dilemma is whether we can accept that,” Koh said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has long favored engagement to ease tensions with the North, earlier yesterday welcomed Kim’s suggestion of an opportunity for dialogue.

However, he indicated that improvements in ties must go hand-in-hand with steps toward denuclearization.

Kim’s comments were the first indication of the North’s willingness to take part in the Games to be held from Feb. 9 to 25.

Moon called them a “positive response” to Seoul’s hopes that the Olympics would be a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace” and urged officials to come up with measures to realize the North’s participation.

Beijing, Pyongyang’s main ally, welcomed developments.

“We support the two sides in taking advantage of this opportunity to make concrete efforts to improve bilateral ties... and realize the denuclearization of the peninsula,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) said.

In his speech, Kim said that the Olympics could provide a reason for officials from the neighbors “to meet in the near future.”

“Since we are compatriots of the same blood as South Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them,” Kim said.

The main venues for the Games are just 80km from the border with North Korea and the build-up to the event has been overshadowed by the nuclear standoff.

However, Seoul and the Games’ organizers are keen for the North to take part.

Analysts say its participation at Pyeongchang is likely, given Kim’s remarks about sending a delegation there.

Two North Korean athletes — pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik — qualified for the Games, but Pyongyang’s Olympic Committee missed an Oct. 30 deadline to confirm to the International Skating Union that they would participate.

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