North Korea Moves Toward Détente With Seoul


It is a strategy meant to resonate with many South Korean progressives who argue that defusing tensions on the peninsula has to be Seoul’s top priority. And it pointedly excluded the United States, although South Korea insists it will keep the United States in the loop.

By leaving bombast out of his speech last week and even appearing before the cameras in a Western-style suit and tie, Mr. Kim clearly wants to be seen as a statesman.

Mr. Trump, who has promised to “totally destroy” the North if it puts the United States at risk, has already claimed credit for the new tone. The latest United Nations Security Council sanctions, issued last month, were intended to threaten the North’s energy supplies and its opportunities to earn hard currency, possibly derailing the North’s surprising economic growth.

What Mr. Kim is not discussing with the South is the future of his nuclear weapons and missile programs. Many experts fear that is exactly the point: Relief from tightening sanctions or threat of American attack may gave his engineers time to perfect a warhead able to hit the continental United States.

The evidence of that came on Tuesday when Ri Son-kwon, the chief North Korean delegate to the talks, protested when South Korea called for the resumption of denuclearization discussions, according to pool reports. And none are scheduled.

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Delegates from South Korea, right, and North Korea at the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. Besides announcing that the North would participate in the Olympics next month, the two sides said a variety of talks and exchanges would be held.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To drive home the point Mr. Ri said, according to the same reports, “Our cutting-edge weapons, including our hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are not targeting our Korean brothers, China or Russia, but the United States.”

Mr. Kim has made no secret of his determination to keep his nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. In his New Year’s speech, he described his country’s atomic arsenal as the only thing preventing the United States from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula, boasting of the “nuclear button” on his desk. That led to Mr. Trump’s retort that he has “a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

The mine-is-bigger exchange obscured two more important elements of the speech. Mr. Kim told his people to brace themselves for the effects of sanctions, which have led to fuel shortages and significantly higher prices. It was a rare admission that Mr. Trump’s campaign was getting to Mr. Kim.

Mr. Kim also urged the South to break ranks with Washington on the issue of sanctions and begin talks about the Olympics. Mr. Moon has been worried about a North Korean disruption of the Winter Games, and his staff members told American officials that South Korea wanted to suspend military exercises with the United States during the Olympics and find a role for the North, which won seven medals in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Senior American officials said they had no choice but to accede to Mr. Moon’s appeals. Mr. Trump agreed in a Jan. 4 phone call with Mr. Moon to suspend the military exercises, and said at Camp David over the weekend that “I’d like to see them getting involved in the Olympics and maybe things go from there.”

The Games end in late February. In Washington, it is widely believed that no military action would happen until afterward, in the event that diplomatic routes fail.

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A banner and mascots in Seoul promoting next month’s Winter Olympics in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang.

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Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press

The Pentagon has drawn up extensive plans, including a punch-in-the-nose strategy against the North that would involve taking out a missile, and a much broader attack on the missile and nuclear sites. But both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson have argued internally that it would be nearly impossible to contain any retaliation, officials have said.

The State Department welcomed Tuesday’s talks at the Demilitarized Zone, but Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman, said South Korean officials “will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions.”

Both the North and South have engaged in this dance before.

Twenty-six years ago, just as the Soviet Union was disappearing, the countries signed a treaty of reconciliation and nonaggression that promised to formally bring an end to the Korean War, keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons and re-establish telephone lines, mail and economic exchanges. Most of that agreement has never been realized.

But if Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon were to move to re-establishing diplomacy without clear steps by the North toward denuclearization, they would greatly complicate Mr. Trump’s military threat and could well undermine the international effort to get China to further tighten sanctions against Pyongyang.

“It gives the Chinese government the chance to do what it wishes to do: Pull back on the pressure that the Americans are intent on building,” Mr. Eberstadt noted.

Any provocation from the North, especially another intercontinental missile test or an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon, could change that dynamic. And that would work to the advantage of the United States, which knows that testing is critical to Mr. Kim’s ambition to prove, beyond doubt, that he can target American cities.

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A rally last week in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

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Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press

The core of the debate in Seoul is whether Mr. Kim’s overture is a tactical move, or represents an entirely new strategy.

“His peace offensive is leading to the first steps in a transition from confrontation and rising tensions to easing tensions and peace on the peninsula,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

But if his intent was to divide the South from the United States, Mr. Kim has his moment.

South Korea’s ethnic nationalism has always been a major factor in its politics; in the late 1980s, there were more protests against the United States’ military presence in the South than against the North’s threats. And for those South Koreans longing for a thaw after months of tensions, Mr. Kim could hardly have chosen a better way than through sports.

Despite the Koreas’ longstanding enmity, South Koreans often cheer for the North’s athletes in international competition. As early as 1964, the two Koreas discussed fielding a joint Olympic team, an idea that has never worked but has resurfaced over the decades.

In 2000, however — the year the two Koreas held their first summit meeting — athletes from both countries marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They did so again at the Athens Games in 2004, carrying a blue and white flag representing a unified Korea. Their athletes last marched together at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.

“I want to see the same glory again,” President Moon said in June, suggesting that the two nations march together in Pyeongchang. On Tuesday, South Korean officials said the two sides were close to agreeing that they would do so.

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