North Korea has accepted South Korea’s proposal for official talks, in what will be the first high-level contact to take place between the two countries in more than two years.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told reporters Friday North Korea informed its southern neighbor by fax at 10:16 a.m. local time (8:16 p.m Thursday ET) that they have accepted the South’s offer to initiate talks.
The person-to-person talks will be held January 9th — one day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House, located on the South Korean side of the so-called truce village of Panmunjom, located in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two nations, Baik said.
The spokesman said the two sides agreed to work on the details of the talks “through the exchange of documents,” and added the agenda items of the talks will be “issues related to improving inter-Korean relationships including the Pyeongchang (Winter) Olympic Games.”
Baik added that he understands that “the North Korean side is also scheduled to have talks with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) next week.”
When asked whether hotlines will be open on the weekend, he said he expected they would, as time to prepare for the first face-to-face meeting in over two years was running short.
The faxed message accepting the long-standing offer of talks was from Ri Son Kwon, chairman of the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. It was addressed to his de facto counterpart, South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, Baik added.
When asked by a reporter if Ri and Cho would attend the talks, Baik said that the personnel who will attend the meetings is a matter that still needs to be finalized.
The last high level inter-Korea talks were a deputy ministerial meeting between South and North Korea that took place in December 2015, at the jointly-run Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea.
The industrial park, which opened in 2004 in a rare show of cooperation between the two Koreas, was shuttered in 2016 in response to Pyongyang’s ramping-up of missile and nuclear testing.
The announcement of talks comes on the heels of other signs of nascent rapprochement between the two rivals.
In recent days a hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang, which had remained unused for two years, rang once again, in what has been widely regarded as a major diplomatic breakthrough. At least five calls have been placed through the cross-border channel since.
Contact between the two Koreas was initiated after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed hope during his annual New Year’s day address that a North Korean delegation might participate in next month’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Two North Korea athletes, the figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-sik, have qualified for the Games. While Pyongyang has missed a registration deadline for the two, it is understood that the IOC could allow an exception to be made.
During the annual address, Kim also expressed a desire for a peaceful resolution to the decades-old conflict with South Korea. The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, meaning that the two nations have technically been at war since.
Last year, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told CNN that North Korean participation in Pyeongchang will “provide a very good opportunity for inter-Korean peace and reconciliation.”
The advanced stage of North Korea’s weapons program could afford its leadership the luxury of diplomacy, said Tong Zhao, a North Korea analyst and Fellow at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
“I think Kim Jong Un is now a different position after the Hwasong-15 (long-range missile) testing. At a minimum, North Korea has achieved a rudimentary strategic deterrent and can afford to not continue testing … North Korea apparently has plans to mass produce missiles and nuclear warheads but could (now) consider a moratorium on ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) tests.”
However, despite potential risks, Zhao views the resumption of talks as a positive sign, and considers the upcoming meeting to be a first step in improving bilateral relations.
“After Kim Jong Un made the overture in his New Year address, the two sides quickly resumed the hotline and agreed to meet — the pace of development is very quick,” Zhao said.
“There is an indication that North Korea wants to explore broader issues. I expect they will engage in other issues as well (at the talks) … It’s hard to tell how quickly they will settle the Olympic issue but it’s clear that both sides want to go further with these talks.”
A similar sense of optimism has yet to extend beyond the Korean peninsula.
On Thursday, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, called North Korea’s nuclearization “absolutely unacceptable” and said the security situation facing his country is the severest since World War II.
US officials have so far maintained a similarly skeptical stance regarding Kim’s sincerity in soothing tensions.
Speaking Tuesday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a stern warning to North Korea, saying the US “will never accept a nuclear North Korea.”
However, signs suggest the US’ hardline stance may be softening in light of recent developments. In a phone call between US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Thursday, the two leaders agreed not to host joint military drills during the period of Pyeongchang Olympics, according to a South Korean government statement.
A senior US military official also confirmed to CNN that there would be no joint exercises during the Games.
“(Even) if South Korea-North Korea relations improve thanks to the Olympics, the US-South Korea (military) drills will still take place after that, which could still be major reason for turbulence going forward,” said Zhao, the North Korea analyst.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has long criticized the US-South Korean drills, declaring them a direct threat to Pyongyang, and a possible barrier to the resumption of diplomatic talks.
The decision to hold off on military drills is a diplomatic response from the US President, who earlier this week bragged in a tweet that his nuclear button was “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s.
Trump has since sought to take credit for the resumption of communications between Pyongyang and Seoul.
“With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
“Fools, but talks are a good thing!” he added.